In this Series we've soared (and stumbled) through heaven and hell. I prefer heaven, so we're going to explore that some more.
In Part 1 we saw that the purpose of life on earth is to be "abased."
1. Saving knowledge (what the scriptures call "intelligence") is acquired by completing a descent / ascent cycle.
2. The descent phase is called "condescension" in scripture.
3. The ascent phase is called "exaltation" in scripture. According to Joseph Smith, we go "from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead." (JS, History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844], p. 1971, The Joseph Smith Papers)
But Joseph could have equally said we go "from condescension to condescension." It just doesn't sound as catchy.
4. Here's the important part: the extent of our condescension will dictate the extent of our exaltation, which are always proportionate.
5. Thus we see the opposition in all things; Christ is the great exemplar of this truth; He said: "The Son of Man hath descended below them all" (D&C 122:8).
6. If we want to encounter Christ, chances are we will meet Him during our descent phase (which is ironic, because everyone expects to find Him by climbing up the ladder, when in fact you're more likely to see him in a soup kitchen at the bottom of it) (see Matt. 25:37-40).
7. Why must we "descend"? I mean, couldn't we be good little boys and girls and just take a direct flight to Kolob, straight-as-an-arrow, upwards forever and forever, to infinity and beyond? What strikes me is that the Lord (who was perfect) traveled to heaven via hell.
8. The signs in the heavens typify the ascent / descent cycle; Christ's, that is, and to the extent we follow Him, our own.
This is what we're going to dive deeper into.
The Importance of Cosmology to Establishing Zion
Some of you may find the hullabaloo over constellations and celestial signs off-putting; you might worry it veers too closely into astrology (but doesn't all truth have its knock-offs?); and some may question the relevance of this topic to our Christian walk.
Let's review a few things to help answer their concerns:
1. The Restoration-of-All-Things is much more expansive than we supposed: it includes, quite critically, the Restoration-of-the-Earth to its paradisiacal glory; this is far more than just a lipstick-job.
The earth needs to return to the state she was in before she was divided and subdivided (we discussed this in Part 4 and also in Translation and Tarrying), preparatory to receiving her celestial halo (D&C 88:19).
Quite literally, the Restoration is intended to restore the earth to her proper place in the cosmos so those who dwell hereon may receive their celestial glory.
2. The Savior told us to "watch" for the Signs of the Times. Do we think those signs are all earthquakes-and-wars-and-famines-and-pestilence? No, no; the majority of the Signs the Lord foretold appear in the heavens.
a. The sun shall be darkened
b. The moon turned to blood
c. The stars shall fall from heaven
d. There shall be "greater signs in heaven above" (D&C 29:14)
e. There shall be "a new heaven"
f. The heavens shall unravel like a scroll
The curtain of heaven [shall] be unfolded, as a scroll is unfolded after it is rolled up.
g. There shall be revealed "the sign of the Son of man in heaven" (Matt. 24:30).
Joseph Smith said, "Then will appear one grand sign of the Son of Man in heaven. But what will the world do? They will say it is a planet, a comet, &c." (History of the Church, 5:337).
And lest we forget:
3. In the beginning, the heavens were meticulously ordered to instill within humanity a yearning for something greater, higher, diviner.
And the Gods organized the lights in the expanse of the heavens . . . to be for signs and for seasons.
4. Zion serves as the "beachhead" that will connect the Remnant of Israel with the Lost 10 Tribes and Enoch's City preparatory to the Lord's return. This event will be cosmic; it is extraterrestrial!
A Beginner's Bootcamp in Astronomy
When I was thirteen, I attended a week-long Scout Camp at Maple Dell. The most memorable part was getting the Astronomy Merit Badge; each night after dark we hiked to the summit of the mountain, where we turned off our flashlights and watched the stars. I had never seen the sky like that: so clear and unclouded by human light-pollution.
The magic I felt staring up at the night sky and learning about the constellations has always stayed with me, even into adulthood. On my i-Phone I have the Sky Guide app (which I recommend) so I can lay on the grass in the backyard with my children, searching the stars.
With apologies to those of you who are amateur astronomers, I am going to give a brief "Bootcamp" for those of us who are new to this topic. It will provide a needed foundation upon which we can build in our discussion of sacred astronomy.
Now let's get to it.
Think of how the Bible came-to-be. As a book, I mean. As the central, universal text of Christianity.
Okay, good. Now compare the way the books of the Bible were selected, compiled and canonized ― which took centuries to coalesce into the form we have today, and which, we believe, was guided by God's hand ― now compare that process with how the star map came to be. Did it follow a similar path?
Instead of Galatians, we have Gemini; instead of Second Corinthians, Scorpius.
Ancient peoples used the stars to navigate the seas, but more than that, they used the stars to navigate their faith.
No, not in some frou-frou, eccentric-old-aunt-who-reads-her-horoscope kind of way, but as means of genuine worship of God (and from time to time, the gods).
So how do we pick out the good from the chaff? How do we know what is true from what is false?
Well, the Lord told us how; in the same way we approach the apocryphal works of the Bible!
There are many things contained therein that are true [and] there are many things contained therein that are not true.
Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; and whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom.
(D&C 91:1-2, 4-5)
There we have it. Like any other part of the gospel, our search for truth (in this case, our study of the heavens) requires spiritual discernment.
Shall we shrink from our quest merely because the path is pocked with pitfalls ― with false starts, red herrings, and foolish interpretations?
No, of course not. Onwards, then!
(Babylonian Venus Tablet)
A Brief History of Astronomy
Foremost, the ancients used the stars to situate themselves amidst the cosmic workings of life and death ― which form the crux of all creation.
The Egyptian Pyramids were built to align with the Pole Star; the temple of Amun-Re at Karnak was set to the rising of the midwinter Sun.
British Professor John Barrow said, "You should not take very seriously the idea that people who named these star-patterns really did believe them to be looking like, say, a hunter or a plough. They were symbolic." The ancients were not simpletons; we should not view them as idiots but as wise in ways we have forgotten, lost within the modern machinery of materialistic humanism.
One of the myths I love from Egypt was how Pharaoh, when he died, it was said his soul would ascend into the heavens and become a star.
Our Christian tradition preserves that idea: there's a star called Wormwood; Jesus is the "bright and morning star"; and Lucifer was a "shining one" (a star) who fell from heaven with his hungering hordes, creating a hole in the heart of our Family.
One of the earliest texts we have about the planets is the Babylonian tablet of Ammisaduqa (circa 1500 B.C.) describing the movement of Venus. Do all the planets bear witness of Christ, in their own unique way?
The Babylonians developed books they called Star Catalogues and used their sophisticated mathematics and geometry to chart the constellations. Was it mere curiosity, or were they searching for some greater pattern, or meaning, in the firmament?
Where did the Wise Men come from?
Where is he that is born the King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east.
The ancient astronomers were not scientists, like we think of them today; back then, those who studied the stars and mapped the heavens were priest-scribes.
In China, the scribes developed the Twenty-Eight Mansions (the Chinese constellation system), which track the movement of the Moon through a 28-day month. In India they created a similar system called the Nakshatra. And the Arabs loved to study the stars, too. They shared their knowledge with the Greeks, from whence came our modern understanding of astronomy.
Remarkably, in Ptolemaic Egypt at Alexandria, it was a melting pot where diverse cultures shared their knowledge with each other; the Egyptian tradition merged with Greek astronomy and Babylonian astronomy ― a common tongue was born in the constellations.
Over time, the various astronomical methods and approaches synthesized into the one we have today.
Sure, they used different names for the stars and constellations (for example, the Sumerians called Orion sidallu, which means "The Loyal Shepherd of heaven"), but despite the differences, it amazes me how things came together.
Well, it was not quite so seamless.
Things didn't get settled in the form we have now until 1922, when the International Astronomical Union agreed on 88 constellations.
In our next post, we'll take a look at some foundational astronomical principles and concepts.
I must have had a sense of humor when I was born because I interrupted a temple endowment session.
My father was escorting his friend, Jim Faber, through the Oakland Temple. We lived in Fresno, California, about 3 hours away from the temple, and my mother was due anytime with me (her fourth child).
In the middle of the endowment session, a temple worker walked in with a note, asking, "Is there a Brother Merrill here?"
My mother had called the temple and asked them to find my father and deliver the message, "It's time."
My father immediately left, in the middle of the session, leaving his friend behind ("Sorry!"), and sped home as fast as he could and gave my mother a blessing. They traveled to St. Ames hospital and I was born 22 minutes after arrival.
I was 10 lbs. and have been a big boy ever since.
Four weeks later, I attended Church for my first time.
"We Interrupt This Sacrament Program . . ."
On April 8, 1979, my father gave me a baby blessing in Sacrament Meeting. He was joined in the circle by his friend Roger McGrady, Bishop Ashcraft and his counselor Ralph Freeman, and by our home teacher, Phil Mallory. The two full-time elders also joined us, Elders Rhodes and Neeld.
(I don't remember any of this, of course; but my father kept a detailed journal.) And on this day, he wrote:
"I blessed him with a strong voice to call to repentance the Lord's people."
My intent from the start has been to gently "cry repentance unto the Lord's people," however awkward and imperfect I may be (like a 300-pound Linebacker who snatches a fumbled football and runs it down the field as the more agile, faster athletes overtake him; I have never had the grace of a Running Back or the star-power of a Quarterback ─ but I am willing to hold the skirmish line and defend my teammates (and the truth) to the end of the fourth quarter).
Wherefore, you are called to cry repentance unto this people.
Sometimes people ask me why I direct my message to the Church and its members; do they need to be told to repent? Surely there are more deserving groups out there who need this message? I get the impression they think the Church already has all the gospel it needs and I should pack up my soapbox and take it to the barbarians in Timbuktu (or, you know, to those who vote Democrat).
And is it really my place to point out the ways the Church could do a better job at being Christian? Why not leave it alone? Why not let the leaders handle it?
Ah, but remember: the gospel must be preached to every kindred, tongue and people in their own language (Acts 2:6-8).
I am a native LDS-speaker; my cultural and spiritual language is Mormonism.
All I can say to them is, "I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, and have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life" (3 Nephi 5:13).
Like Jesus, we are often called to minister among "our own" kind, even if they don't listen:
I came unto my own, and my own received me not.
(3 Nephi 9:16)
Perhaps someday I'll branch out and preach to strangers, but for now I am sent to my friends (Luke 11:5-8).
Putting the "Global" in GPS
Clark Burt said, "GPS only works if you know where you are and where you are going."
Let's pause and see where we are, but in a new light. "Where we are" is not so much a function of place but of people.
It is not where we are but with whom that determines our location in the eternities.
When I was in my 20s, eager and inexperienced, I dreamt of changing the world by doing some grandiose work for God (this was before I came to understand that Christ had beat me to it).
As I grew older, I realized I didn't need to shout the gospel from the rooftops with the trump of angels because the Lord already had messengers assigned to each nation, people and tongue. Most of us are planted in His vineyard to tend a little bit of it, not the whole field.
And so my life changed when I reoriented my perspective from "changing the world" to "warning my neighbor" with cookies and milk (D&C 88:81).
The Lord wasn't expecting me to reach those in Pakistan or Bangladesh; he was expecting me to teach my family and those who live across the street.
A poem I love by Meade McGuire captures this sentiment:
Father, Where Shall I Work Today?
Father, where shall I work today? And my love flowed warm and free. Then He pointed me out a tiny spot, And said, “Tend that for me.”
I answered quickly, “Oh, no, not that. Why, no one would ever see, No matter how well my work was done. Not that little place for me!”
And the word He spoke, it was not stern, He answered me tenderly, “Ah, little one, search that heart of thine; Art thou working for them or me?
Nazareth was a little place, And so was Galilee.”
("Father, Where Shall I Work Today?" by Meade McGuire)
Where Are We Going?
Now that we know where we are, that is, in modest surroundings and with humble friends ― in our individual Bethlehems (it was a little town) and personal Capernaums (that backwater) ― let us address where we're headed.
Pretend for a moment we're owls using our spiritual sonar to navigate through this dark telestial terrain, our ears twitching as we follow the rumbling roar of the Lion of Judah.
We don't always know where He is leading us, because our destination is not a place but a Person. People are not fixed coordinates.
For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me.
Do you remember when "enduring to the "end" seemed like such an easy thing at the beginning of our journey?
But after so many miles and millennia, after enduring eons and eternities that pass by endlessly, our travel-weary-and-worn pilgrims come to a startling realization: the "end" was not what we first imagined it to be.
Of Figs and Leaves
The most personal poem I've written is Fig Tree. While all my poems contain a bit of me, "Fig Tree" is the most autobiographical. It describes my pilgrimage up Moriah's mount.
As you read it, it wouldn't surprise me if you recognize the same trail, having walked it yourself.
Fig Tree a poem
Barely a leaf─ just a remnant remained to turn aside the heat of day. A shame no shade spread under the unforgiving shadow of Nazarite branches shorn of summer (a season somehow nigh, always near, but not yet). Was the tree’s nakedness or mine to blame for the present state?
I was an hungered and wished to God for a sign of precious fruit. But the east wind shook my palmerworm faith tunneling through grief. The wind scorched my cheek (but I marveled how the branches sat eerily still, unmoved by the storm). Is it better for me to die than to live a wasting death?
I did not ask as others: Why must the tree wither? And what of our aprons when no leaves remain for covering? Are we to gird ourselves with thistles?
I knelt beside the tree upon a marred girdle not caring who should discover my secret parts, crying: Lord, see my weakness─ my heart is an olive pitted by your hand, its stone carried forth with the ark of testimony. Where now the pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet clinging to your covenant vine? Graft me: shy not away your pruning-hook.
A fig appeared in my cradled palm opening as if split by the sharpness of God’s finger, its center cracked cleanly like hemispheres falling away from the Tropic of Capricorn.
The fig was filled with clustered seeds sinking into rivulets of blood. I tasted its helicoid promises and felt the trembling heavens through the dirt beneath my feet, the stars casting fruit like unripe hailstones to the earth. I picked one from the ground, comparing, and knew:
Have you ever wondered if the angels wear wrist watches? Does Kolob sell a line of Rolexes? How do the angels tell time as they jump across time zones and between glories?
We mark our birthdays using the Gregorian calendar, but if an angel described the timing of our birth, would they say, "She was born in 2001"? I doubt it: their desk calendars do not match our own.
The irreconcilable differences between God's reckoning and man's timing has caused a lot of mischief ― especially in terms of the timing of prophecies, dispensations, and measuring generations.
Is it time we synced our watches to God's clock?
Something goes "like clockwork" when it functions without problems or delays.
Does Christ "delay" His coming (D&C 45:26), or is He right-on-schedule? Much is lost-in-translation when dealing with the celestial mechanics of sacred time, which don't fit neatly with our Gregorian calendar (hence why no man knows the day or hour, I guess).
Thus, understanding the "signs of the times" is not about predicting dates and years; it is about understanding the clockwork of Christ through understanding the types, symbols and figures God has given, including those in the stars (like the Zodiac).
I think we underestimate the importance of time; when we view "time" through Christ's eyes, we won't be in a hurry; we won't act hastily; we won't worry.
Why? Because "the peace which passeth all understanding" (Philip. 4:7) accompanies an unshakeable assurance that God's handiwork (like clockwork) shall be redeemed in "the due time of the Lord" (1 Nephi 10:3).
So how does God relate to time? Does He live inside or outside of time? Does He time-sync when dealing with His children here on earth, who are immersed in it?
And most importantly, how does God walk through the currents of time flowing between glories and kingdoms? Can He go backwards in time?
Since the workings of God can span across eons and eternities, He has a long view of things. A bad "day" for God would cover the entire Middle Ages.
Maybe that's why He doesn't panic at the bumps in the road we experience here in mortality. Because with enough time, He can achieve anything.
Fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail.
"The Meridian of Time"
It's hard to have an eternal perspective when we measure our lifespans in years, not centuries; when we want to cry out as Joseph Smith in Liberty jail:
O God, where art thou? How long shall thy hand be stayed?
Notice these two questions attempt to situate God in space-time:
(1) Where is God (space); and
(2) How long will He take getting here (time)?
While there is much we do not comprehend about God, I think it is safe to say that something we have in common with Him is that we both operate through cause-and-effect, which means eternity is split into innumerable befores-and-afters.
For example, when Enoch had his remarkable vision, he was told Christ's coming would occur in the "meridian of time" (Moses 7:46; see also Moses 5:57).
A "meridian" is a fascinating word to use, so I want to focus on what a "meridian" is.
In brief, a meridian is a circle. But not just any circle; it is a circle around the earth's surface that is constant, passing between the earth's poles. On earth, since 1884, the Prime Meridian passes through Greenwich, England (0 degrees).
Christ is our Prime Meridian. All celestial time is measured as it relates to Him.
The causal force of creation is Christ; the effect is the atonement. But notice that the effects of the atonement differ when we speak of the spiritual vs. the temporal.
Spiritually the effects of the atonement are applied timelessly (and retroactively), covering everyone who had ever been born before Gethsemane as well as those after it.
Alma reasoned, a century before Christ's atonement:
Behold, I say unto you, is not a soul at this time as precious unto God as a soul will be at the time of his coming?
So we see that the spiritual blessings of the atonement existed before the physical performance of Christ's sacrifice, which was taught by King Benjamin:
Whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins . . . as though he had already come among them.
Why is this important? Because the atonement (though infinite and eternal) did not work retroactively when it came to physical resurrection.
Christ was the first-fruits of the resurrection, and all those who had died before Him had to wait to be physically resurrected until after Him.
So resurrection was limited based on timing in a way that the spiritual atonement was not. Thus we see that Christ's atonement walks along two time-tracks. Fascinating, isn't it? But is it important?
Prepare to embark upon a journey that will stretch our minds to the furthest heavens and the darkest abyss (TPJS, p. 137).
God's "Course is One Eternal Round"
Heaven can refer to many things: it can describe the place where God dwells, or it may refer to the society of exalted beings. But I want to talk about heaven in a specific way, in Abraham-Chapter-Three terms.
Kolob, we learn, is "after the manner of the Lord, according to its times and seasons in the revolutions thereof" (Abr. 3:4). Just as planets circle around a star, so too we find God's "course is one eternal round" (D&C 3:2).
What is a "course"? It is "the act of moving in a path from point to point, often progressing through a developmental period or series of events; an ordered process."
The symbolism of Kolob hits us over the head as being a type of Christ; for Kolob (Christ) signifies "the first creation, nearest the celestial [and] first in government" (Facsimile 2, Fig. 1).
The "course" that Christ (Kolob) walks is the path (orbit) we must follow to become as He is.
I visited the Redwood Forests in California last year; at the visitor center the Park Ranger gave me a map of the trails. It started to rain heavily; with my family, we marched through the mud and I kept referring to the (wet) map to figure out which way to go. Because I am terrible at navigation, even with a map, I would have gotten lost except for the fact the trail was marked with signs. I was so relieved when we came to a crossroads and there was a wooden sign with arrows pointing the way.
Heaven is marked by signs (stars and constellations) that point us towards Christ. The course of Christ is an intricate, celestial clock (a "round") that cycles endlessly, in whose scales the worlds-without-end are measured and weighed.
This is the Godly geometry we call "eternity." An eternity is one full round (revolution) of heaven.
Where is Heaven?
When viewed as the totality of God's creations, heaven describes the ordered ("numbered" or "named") creations among His handiwork that have embarked upon the path (course) He has laid for our advancement and growth.
In March 1841, Joseph Smith declared:
"God is good and all his acts are for the benefit of inferior intelligences....
"Therefore, the Lord called them together in council and agreed to form them tabernacles so that he might gender the spirit and the tabernacle together."
(William McIntire Minute Book, March 1841)
Thus we learn the purpose of this circuit we're on: to "gender the spirit and the tabernacle together." (This, the scriptures call "intelligence, or the light of truth." I've talked about this concept in the past, as intelligence is the power of the Spirit upon element; I am not just talking about our physical bodies; I am speaking of tabernacles that extend far beyond our mortal frames, to encompass all things.)
For now, remember we are numbered; we are named. Therefore, we are part of the coursework of heaven itself.
Heaven, naturally, consists of various degrees and glories, but don't think of it in a two-dimensional sense, in which we go "up" to heaven or "down" to hell. Glory increases as we go "in" and diminishes as we go "out."
In our current condition (here in a fallen world) we are in a telestial borderland that is pretty far "out" there; the scriptures call it the "wilderness."
In these outer-reaches (not outer-darkness, thankfully) we find bandits and pirates aplenty. Crime is rampant; homelessness is common; sickness spreads easily.
But we are still within a kingdom (creation) of God. Outer-darkness ― not as used in scriptures but in the modern parlance ― means to be cast out of heaven (thrown off course) into a place where God's glory is not found.
But as we progress inward, coming closer to God ― who is described as being "in the bosom (the center, the heart-place) of eternity" (D&C 88:13) ― something curious happens: we discover spacetime unlike our own, in which there is an absence of impurity; with no plagues or leprosy or leukemia; a place beyond the reach of despair and death, where all uncleanness is consumed in the everlasting burnings of God's love.
The Tabernacle of God
The idea, you see, is not to bring us "into heaven" because we're already in it.
The idea is to bring the glories of the Father further outward, enlarging His dominion.
Imagine a leper whose hand is rotted away; we are at the extremity of heaven, the telestial.
Now, the hand is still connected to the body even if it is sick. The idea is not to cut the hand off, for it must be saved.
Neither is the solution to replace the hand with a hook; or to cover its sores with a napkin. But we don't want to put the hand in our mouth, either, due to its putridness.
So what's the answer? How can the hand be healed and restored? How can the hand receive strength to its nerves, to do the work it was created for?
And finally, how can the spirit of man exert its influence upon the flesh to rebuke the leprosy and make the hand whole?
We are the tabernacle of God. The Spirit is the central nervous system of heaven (the light of Christ) which connects all the parts of the body to the brainstem, the Mind of God.
Thus our distance from God is not necessarily a consequence of sin, but of survival, for if we are not "prepared" to present ourselves at the veil (that curtain of fire which surrounds the Tree of Life), we would perish in HIs presence.
This is what it means to repent: to clasp hands with God, whose arm extends through the Cherubim's flame to take our hand in His, drawing us back into His presence.
All those who turn to face God ("repent") cannot help but have His image seared into their visages with the flame unperishable, branding their flesh and spirit with His name.
All this to say, God's arm extends through all the heavens, great and small; there is no part or place in His heaven that He cannot reach us.
Time is Not of the Essence
I know, I know. "Time is measured only to man; there will be no time in the Millennium. God resides in an eternal Now."
Actually, the only time that will cease-to-be in a future day is the time we're accustomed to in our current state ― it is our calendars, not God's, that shall become obsolete in the Divine Y2K of the earth being rolled up as a scroll.
It is a unique feature of the gospel of Christ to watch for the signs and seasons of His coming. The celestial clock does not include manmade gears and wheels; it does not rely on spinning handles to tell the hour and minute.
This celestial clock is timed to the movement of the spinning stars and planets:
They move in their times and their seasons;
And their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets.
And they give light to each other in their times and in their seasons, in their minutes, in their hours, in their days, in their weeks, in their months, in their years-- all these are one year with God, but not with man.
Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.
(D&C 88:42-44, 47)
It appears the Restoration exposed a big gap in our gospel knowledge, to wit: understanding the Logos-sky. We're not talking about astrology, but of a sacred knowledge dealing with the workings of the heavens and how they mark sacred time.
In the beginning, Adam was taught of these things; Abraham had them renewed to him; and Joseph Smith gave us a glimpse but never took the time to spell it out. So we'll have to fill in the gaps.
The records of the fathers, even the patriarchs, concerning the right of Priesthood, [includes] a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars.
When was the last time we heard a General Authority give a talk on the meaning of the Zodiac? Isn't it ironic we claim to have the authority of the Priesthood, having lost its key of knowledge?
In our next post, we shall explore the celestial calendar.
Some commandments get more attention than others. I'm talking about the 'cool' commandments sitting at the school lunch table wearing Letterman Jackets and Poodle Skirts (voted most popular by the student body). These include keeping the Sabbath day holy, honoring our parents, and not committing adultery. Who can argue with that?
But scooted in the corner at the back of the cafeteria is a lunch table with the misfits: the awkward commandments everybody ignores because of their pimples and B.O. These include, for example, Rich (D&C 11:7), Nic (Revelation 2:15) and Raca (Matt. 5:22).
And there we find, last but not least, the Second Commandment.
No, I don't mean the commandment about loving our neighbors; I'm talking about the one Moses gave that says we shouldn't make graven images of God (sorry, Bertel Thorvaldsen).
Can you remember the last time you heard a Sunday School lesson on the Second Commandment and Iconoclasm? Me neither. Each generation reinterprets the commandments for their day. But believe me, the Second Commandment was all the rage in the 700s A.D.
Let me tell you, back then people took it seriously (Exodus 20:4). In fact, it tore the Church apart; the Byzantine emperor Leo III officially prohibited the display of images (icons) depicting God, which policy was reversed by Empress Irene ― and finally came full circle when Leo V took power and destroyed the forbidden images in 815 A.D.
But Empress Theodora had the last laugh, restoring icon veneration in 843 A.D.
When President Nelson introduced the new Church Logo in General Conference, I posted on Facebook, "The Pope called and he wants his icon back." Good times.
You might be wondering, "Tim, why is this important? How does the Second Commandment bring me closer to Christ?"
I'm glad you asked! Every post I write is intended to draw our minds and hearts to God and Christ's law; this is no different. By discussing what it means to "make an image" of Him, I hope we'll never view this commandment the same way again.
Anyway, before we get to things as-they-stand today, we need to have a digression about the Law of Moses in general.
Sinai: "Can You Hear Me Now?"
When God wrote upon the stone tablets on Mount Sinai the 10 heaven-headlining laws for the children of Israel, why did He bother with Number 2?
Thou shalt NOT make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above.
Look, I know this happened 3,200 years ago; we weren't even around. Does it really matter what Moses said?
Well, oddly enough, attending Sunday School and listening to the lessons, it feels like the Law of Moses was given yesterday. I sometimes wonder if we skipped the intervening three millennia between the Golden Calf and now, as if nothing important happened during that time.
Why? Because our moralistic preaching (teaching what is right and wrong) is a throw-back to the good old days ― back when Sennacherib and Jehoshaphat were on the nightly news ― when people rode donkeys and didn't use toilet paper. You see, our faith in 2023 has barely matured beyond the walls of Old Jerusalem.
Our morals are stuck in the Bronze Age.
Someone might say, "But Tim, that's a good thing! The principles of righteousness do not change; we should be thankful God has given us a timeless law to live by."
Do we really believe that? Do we really believe the Law of Moses contains the principles of righteousness needed for salvation ― which do not change ― and if so, why are we Christians? Why are we eating pork and shrimp-fried-rice (Leviticus 11:4)? Why do we tell BYU students to shave their beards, which is a big no-no (Lev. 19:27)?
Why aren't we sporting phylacteries on our Lululemon leisure-wear at the gym (Deut. 6:8)? Shouldn't we be celebrating Passover (Lev. 23:8)?
You mean we're supposed to require a maiden who has been raped to marry her rapist (Deut. 22:29)? You're telling me we're not allowed to eat maggots (Leviticus 11:44)? (Okay, I agree with that last one.)
And don't forget the great symbol of the law of Moses: circumcision (Leviticus 12:3). Should we require members of the Church to be circumcised to remain in good standing? How will we verify compliance?
We could ask the apostle Paul (but only if you want a tongue-lashing).
My point is, there's a lot of cherry-picking going on. Christianity has a messy history with the relevance of the Old Testament. We're pretty good at clinging to the parts we like while ignoring the parts we don't, acting like Cafeteria Scriptorians, mixing our cheeses and meats while quoting Leviticus 18:7 on Facebook, trying to have it both ways.
Preaching "moral living" is not the same thing as preaching the gospel. In fact, they're often opposites (see Luke 18:9-14).
If we look at this logically, we're in a difficult position because either we are God-bound to live of the Law of Moses (in 2023) like Orthodox Rabbis, or we can safely ignore it.
All of it. One way or the other.
But what we can't do (if we want to retain our integrity) is pick-and-choose, halting between two opinions, as a mashup of lukewarm Levites and casual Christians.
So before someone tries to prove something to me from the Bible, by using the law Moses gave 3000 years ago, they'll have to do better than that. Why? Because Jesus said:
The law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me. Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me.
(3 Nephi 15:8-15)
The Lord seems pretty clear on the subject:
- We have no law but His (the law of Christ). Not Moses's.
- We have no light to guide us but His (the light of Christ). Whose disciples are we?
"Look" Jesus said, "unto me."
So why are we acting as if He said, "Look unto [Leviticus]"?
I can picture us clutching our Leviticuses at the Pearly Gates. Will that earn us any brownie-points from St. Peter? I'm afraid not; after all, he was the one who taught us:
What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
End of discussion? Not quite . . . .
How Many Commandments Are There?
There aren't ten commandments; there aren't a hundred or a thousand. There is only one.
To love (see Galatians 5:14).
"Sure, Tim," someone might say, "I agree those 613 commandments in Leviticus are outdated, and Christ taught the true meaning of the Law of Moses; but don't throw out the Ten Commandments ― those withstand the test of time!"
Really? Do they, though? Are they an exception to the law having an end in Christ?
The Ten Commandments came out swinging. Normally when we make a list, we put the most important things first. So what is the first commandment of the Decalogue? It must be something big, like Thou Shalt Not Murder or Thou Shalt Not Drink the Caffeine of the Cola Gods. Let's look:
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
That seems reasonable enough ― but then things go downhill fast:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above.
What's up with the Second Commandment? We've barely begun and we've hit a major speed bump, because our homes and churches are packed with portraits and sculptures of God. Sure, that stuff about "thou shalt not bear false witness" is fine-and-good, but should we forget about everything it says about graven images?
Are we in trouble?
I mean, President Nelson made the Christus statue the Church's great icon (er, logo).
What if the Second Commandment is an extension of the First? It talks about not creating "images" and "likenesses" of God. Could this refer to something other than wood-carved idols?
In the Hebrew, the word used for "image" and "likeness" is תְּמוּנָה (temunah); it occurs 10 times in the Bible.
The translators translate "temunah" several ways, including:
1. Image (Job 4:16) 2. Likeness (Deut. 4:23) 3. Similitude (Number 12:8) 4. Form (Deut. 4:6, INT Version)
I think you may have an idea of where I am going with this. What do all these words remind us of? That's right: the creation.
In the beginning, "the earth was without form (temunah), and void" (Moses 2:2).
Moses was told, "My son, thou art in the similitude(temunah) of mine Only Begotten" (Moses 1:6).
We have a description of the creation of Adam and an Eve:
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
(Moses 2:26) How does the Second Commandment's injunction against making "images" and likenesses of God relate to God's creation of us?
"In the image of God"
In Hebrew, it says God created man in His בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ (tselem), which means "resemblance, a representative figure."
So God created man in his own image, in the image (tselem) of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Jesus quoted this text in Matthew 19:4 when responding to a question about divorce. I think that is telling us something profound. Let me suggest that the "image" of God is not so much about our body parts, but our relationships ― specifically marriage.
Sure enough, this same word crops up in Ezekiel in the context of matrimony (or, in this case, harlotry). Ezekiel accuses Jerusalem of playing a prostitute in mockery of what God intended for the marriage bed (this is where it gets interesting):
Thou didst trust in thine own beauty and playedst the harlot . . . and madest to thyself images (tselem) of men, and didst commit whoredoms with them.
(Ezekiel 16:15, 17)
Practice Pointer: while we can take a literal reading of the Second Commandment to refer to wood and stone, the deeper meaning is not about physical "idols" but the corruption of our relationship with God through failed systems of religion. It is about where we place our trust and confidence; this is talking about spiritual fidelity, a faithful love vs. splitting our hearts with man-made commandments and the works of the flesh.
We see, then, why the Lord was frequently unhappy with ancient Israel; they were looking for salvation in all the wrong places: in their rites and rituals, in their high priests and religious observances, rather than in the True God. (And no, these things don't have to be mutually exclusive, but history shows they generally are.)
What's tragic is that Israel ― instead of cruising along with their God-given faith and freedom ― wanted a king; they wanted religious leaders to govern them rather than God. (Is it different today?)
And so in His wrath, God gave them what they asked for; He gave them a lesser-law that was NOT a model of celestial religion, but something inferior, something to condemn them of the hardness of their hearts like a School Marm (Jacob 1:7 and D&C 84:27 and Galatians 3:24).
Over and over, things went sideways as our ancestors replaced the tselem of God with the tselem of man-made religion, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. Will we be the first generation to stop venerating the tselem of our own "beauty" (authority)?
And Jehoiada made a covenant . . . that they should be the Lord’s people.
Then all the people went to the house of Baal, and brake it down, and brake his altars and his images (tselem) in pieces, and slew Mattan the priest of Baal before the altars.
(2 Chronicles 2:16-17)
I quipped earlier that we're breaking the Second Commandment with our heavy use of iconography; but actually, the issue is far worse.
Why? Because like our forefathers, have we trusted in our temple altars over a living faith; in the tselem of our leaders over the living God?
The Anti-Christ is someone who has something very similar to the "image" of God (who "resembles" Him), but is in reality opposed to God.
This is one of the clearest applications of the Second Commandment we see Christ make, in His warning to not worship (or follow) the temunah of those who seem "Christ-like" (which the scriptures describe as "false Christs").
They aren't "false" because they look different than Christ, but because they look the same. But aren't.
For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; [not actually, but sent in His name, with his authority] and shall deceive many.
For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, . . . insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
(Matt. 24:5, 24)
Moses learned this is the way Satan tries to trick us.
Satan cried with a loud voice, and ranted upon the earth, and commanded, saying: I am the Only Begotten, worship me.
There will always be people who want us to follow them, who claim to be (or have special access to) the Only Begotten.
But Moses was wise to the deception. Why? Because he knew HE (Moses) WAS "after the similitude (temunah) of the Only Begotten" (Moses 1:16). Once we've discovered His image, why would we go looking for salvation anywhere else, through anyone else?
If I may, the reason God doesn't want us to follow (worship) the temunah of another is because, by doing so, we deny His temunah in us.
In other words, the Anti-Christ doesn't lead us astray by wearing a red suit and devil's horns, carrying a pitchfork, getting us to gamble, drink and fornicate; no, the Anti-Christ is far too clever for that: he deceives us by getting us amped up on his authority (carnal security), getting us to outsource our innate divine connection to God in exchange for his (the Anti-Christ's) intermediation. In this way, we cede our power to him.
Wasn't this what Nephi warned us about?
And they deny the power of God, the Holy One of Israel; [how?] and they say unto the people: Hearken unto us, [who?] and hear ye our precept; for behold . . . the Lord . . . hath given his power unto men.
(2 Nephi 28:5)
I try to avoid using the term "idolatry" because nobody thinks it applies to them. Myself included. But when I step back and look into my heart dispassionately, the signs are there. I want the carnal security of being a kept-man; of someone telling me, "Tim, if you do this and that, you'll be saved; if you receive this and that, you'll be exalted. Just do as I tell you and I'll make sure none are lost." Wasn't that Lucifer's sales pitch?
And we wonder why one-third part of the hosts of heaven followed him, when here on earth we're doing practically the same thing, which is, entrusting our eternal souls into the hands of someone, or something, other than the Living God ― whether we're following Master Mahan, Prophet, President, or Pope, what does it matter?
I wrote a poem which expresses the danger we're in, hopefully in a way that is memorable.
How simple, how quaint were they in olden times: pagans praying in primitive ghettos to wind and sea and fire, calling from candleside beds to angry gods for good crops and rain to fall on their flat e a r t h
How sophisticated are we with Hubble-focused-faith peering not into the limitless space and perplexity of godhood but at the terra firma of zucchettos, eyes telescoped towards mitered-heads reassuring us all is well in our round
h l e l l l l l l
"Have Ye Received His IMAGE In Your Countenances?"
Have we connected Alma's intriguing question about "receiving God's image" with the creation account?
I ask of you, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances?
I want to ask: how do we "receive" His image? Pause and reflect on that. What does it mean?
Alma connects "receiving" God's image to being spiritually born of God. Alma said, "Have ye spiritually been born of God?" and follows it with the natural consequence of rebirth, i.e., receiving His image.
When we talk about countenances, are we speaking about our physical facial features? The Church's Guide to Scriptures defines "countenance" as "the general appearance of a person's face, which often reflects spiritual attitude and state of mind."
Umm, if that's correct, I'm sunk. Because looking in the mirror, all I can see are these crows' feet and droopy eyelids and sagging chin. "How can I be alive in Christ with my face looking like a hamburger patty left over at a family picnic on a hot summer afternoon?"
This is why I reject the notion that a person's physical appearance is indicative of their spiritual health (sorry, Brad Wilcox).
We're told in Matthew that the angel who appeared to Mary at the tomb had a "countenance" like "lightning" (Matt. 28:3). The Greek word is εἰδέα (eidea), which means "appearance."
Jesus's countenance is described as shining "above the brightness of the sun" (D&C 110:3).
But is your face a burning star? A lightning bolt? None of us have physical features like that. So it must be describing a spiritual light that is not discernable by the natural eye (unless, perhaps, you're looking at one of the Three Nephites):
And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them . . . and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold, they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus.
(3 Nephi 19:25)
Maybe I'm in the minority to believe that our countenance refers to a spiritual light that reflects Christ's image, which most people are oblivious to.
For some reason, there is a strong impulse among Christians to judge those who are overweight or sick as signs of indolence and sin. But can we equate a person's attractiveness with their righteousness?
Suffice it to say, if any of you stumbled upon me as I woke from an afternoon Sunday nap, with stinky breath and eyebrows as disheveled as a camel's, you might think I was the spawn of Satan himself.
So please, let's not judge on the outward appearance.
Now that I've given my body-positivity rant ("You are beautiful!"), let's return to Adam and Eve. If we receive God's image as a sign of spiritual rebirth, what is the creation account referring to when it speaks about the the man and the woman receiving the image and likeness of God?
God created man, in the likeness of God made he him
Okay, so it looks like God creates Adam in his likeness, a male son. But keep watching:
In the image of his own body
Are we talking about God's body, or Adam's?
male and female, created he them
Well, this is curious: the male man was formed "in the likeness" of God; but "the image of God" is neither male nor female, but both. It gets weirder:
and blessed them, and called their name Adam
Who is "their" referring to? Why is the female's name Adam, too? in the day when they were created
Having a temporal body and a name given means they became:
and became living souls.
Hold on: whose name, exactly, was given them? Was it the name Adam, the title given to all first-men? (Moses 1:34). So remember, Adam is a proper title; but to become a "living" soul requires the name of Christ.
How, then, was God's name breathed into our nostrils?
Then we come to Seth. Look at what it says:
And Adam lived 130 years and begat a son in his own likeness [so here Seth is "in" Adam's "likeness"], after his own image. [here Seth is "after" Adam's "image"].
May I ask: is there a difference between having the "likeness" of God vs. receiving His "image"?
Now we stumble upon something curious. We don't find the term "likeness" used again after Seth; during the whole long discussion of Adam's genealogy, we have to wait until the end of the chapter to find another occurrence of "likeness."
And behold, all things have their likeness
Is the antecedent for their "all things" or does it relate back to the beginning of the chapter, where it discussed the creation of man, meaning Them? All things have Their likeness?
and all things Notice this is the second time we read "all things"
are created and made Why? To eat Skittles and go kayaking? To reproduce? Why were we created?
to bear record of me
Ah, now we come to it at last: the purpose of life. How do we "bear" record of, in, God's likeness, after His image? By bearing our testimonies? No, no. Our existence, our being, is witness of Him; it is read in our countenance.
both things which are temporal, and things which are spiritual.
If that last bit was confusing, we're lucky to find an explanation in the Doctrine and Covenants:
That which is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal
Doesn't this seem backwards? Why is our spirit (and the spiritual creation) "in the likeness of that which is temporal"? It seems like we've been taught that the physical creation follows the spiritual creation, but here we see it reversed.
and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual
This is the part we're familiar with. So we've come full circle. Which comes first, the spiritual or physical creation? The chicken or the egg?
the spirit of man in the likeness of his person.
Wait, what? Fiddlesticks; just when I thought I was beginning to understand the "eternal round," it says our physical bodies provide the likeness of our spirit.