You are here
|Title||Symbols from the Scriptures That Testify of Christ|
|Publication Type||Magazine Article|
|Year of Publication||1973|
|Authors||Nelson, William O.|
|Date Published||June 1973|
|Keywords||Atonement; Law of Moses; Manna; Passover; Sacrament; Sacrifice; Symbolism|
Show Full Text
Symbols from the Scriptures That Testify of Christ
By William O. Nelson
Assistant to the Director of Institute Curriculum
Department of Seminaries and Institutes
The primary responsibility of prophets in any dispensation is to bear witness of the divinity, the atonement, and the resurrection of our Savior. This is the unifying message of all the Holy Writ. The Prophet Joseph Smith declared:
“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 3, p. 30.)
By heavenly commission the prophets of God through the ages have exhorted mankind to give heed to this message. King Benjamin’s great sermon (Mosiah 2–5), Alma’s discourse to the lawyers of Ammonihah (Alma 12–13), Peter’s witness of the Savior’s resurrection (Acts 2), and Paul’s testimony to King Agrippa (Acts 26), all contain examples of direct testimony concerning the Savior’s mission.
In order to help man retain a bright recollection of this vital truth, God’s prophets have also employed types, symbols, and ordinances to focus our minds on the mission of Christ.
Before we consider some of these types, symbols, and ordinances, some definitions may be in order. Edersheim makes a helpful distinction between the terms symbol and type.
“An outward observance without any real inward meaning is only a ceremony. But a rite which has a present spiritual meaning is a symbol; and if, besides, it also points to a future reality, conveying at the same time, by anticipation, the blessing that is yet to appear, it is a type. Thus the Old Testament sacrifices were not only symbols, nor yet merely predictions by fact (as prophecy is a prediction by word), but they already conveyed to the believing Israelite the blessing that was to flow from the future reality to which they pointed.” (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple, Its Ministry and Services, p. 106. Italics added.)
The gospel of Jesus Christ is symbolic; all its outward ordinances possess a deep spiritual significance for those who have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” The symbol of baptism by immersion, for example, represents birth into the family of Christ and employs the same elements associated with natural birth: water, blood, and spirit. (See Moses 6:58–60.) It also typifies our own death to sin and worldliness and our resurrection into a newness of life in Christ. In addition, it typifies our own physical death and resurrection and reminds us of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord.
Thus, baptism by immersion is a symbol; it conveys a spiritual meaning, a cleansing from sin. It is also a type because it “points to a future reality” and a “blessing that is yet to appear”: our resurrection.
Baptism by immersion is but one of many types and symbols that testify of the mission of Christ. The brazen serpent that Moses raised upon a pole for the children of Israel to look upon while they were smitten with a plague of serpents in the wilderness represented Jesus Christ who should likewise be raised up. The meaning: whosoever would look to him might have eternal life.
Nephi wrote: “… all things which have been given of God … unto man, are the typifying of him.” (2 Ne. 11:14). Some of these types are:
- The light: “I am the light of the world.” (John 8:12.)
- Water: “… whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.” (John 4:14.)
- The shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd. …” (Ps. 23:1.)
- The rock, or stone: “Look unto the rock from whence ye are hewn” (2 Ne. 8:1); he is the “living stone” (1 Pet. 2:4).
- King and potentate: He is the “King of kings” (Rev. 17:14), our “blessed and only Potentate” (1 Tim. 6:15).
- The lamb: He was “the Lamb that was slain.” (Rev. 5:12.)
- The sun: He is the “Sun of righteousness.” (Mal. 4:2.)
- The life: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6).
As the scriptures have come forth from various sources in various dispensations of the gospel, certain types, symbols, and ordinances have been established and reestablished among God’s covenant people. In the following paragraphs, consideration will be given to some of the more significant types and symbols that bear witness of the unifying message of all scripture: that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world.
The Mosaic Law of Sacrifice.
Some of the most significant Old Testament types and ordinances, prefiguring the Savior’s atonement, were embodied in the Mosaic law of sacrifice. From the time of Moses to John the Baptist, these sacrificial rites were made part of the process of repentance. In order to obtain a forgiveness of sin, the children of Israel, under the law of Moses, were required to offer various sacrifices, typifying the sacrifice to be made by the Messiah. These sacrificial rites were added to the principle of repentance “because of transgression.” (See Gal. 3:19.)
Almost all of the book of Numbers and a considerable portion of the book of Leviticus are dedicated to the instructions of the Lord pertaining to these rites.
The prophets clearly understood that these laws and rites were but “a shadow of those things which are to come,” things that signified that “redemption cometh through Christ the Lord.” (Mosiah 16:14–15.) They taught that “the law of Moses availeth nothing except it were through the atonement of his [Christ’s] blood.” (Mosiah 3:15.) It was further understood that the law of Moses would be fulfilled and that blood sacrifices under the law of Moses would cease after Christ’s “great and last sacrifice.” (See Alma 34:13.)
Amulek declared that “the whole meaning of the law” was “every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.” (Alma 34:14.)
In Christ, this Mosaic law of sacrifice was to have an end. Following his resurrection, the Savior declared that “the law in me is fulfilled, for I have come to fulfill the law; therefore it hath an end … the law which was given unto Moses hath an end in me.” (3 Ne. 15:5, 8.) Then our Lord made clear to his disciples the reason for the change in the law:
“Behold, I am the law, and the light. Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live; for unto him that endureth to the end will I give eternal life.” (3 Ne. 15:9.)
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Following the Savior’s commemoration of the Passover supper, he instituted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance was to be done “in remembrance of me.” President John Taylor has written:
“… the two ceremonies [the Passover and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper] centered in Him, He was the embodiment of both, He was the Being provided before the foundation of the earth, and prophecied [sic] of by men of God throughout all the preceding ages. … Thus this act [the institution of the sacrament] was the great connecting link between the past and the future; thus He fulfilled the law, met the demands of justice, and obeyed the requirements of His Heavenly Father, although laboring under the weight of the sins of the world, and the terrible expiation which He had to make, when, sweating great drops of blood, He cried: ‘Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not my will but thine be done. …’” (The Mediation and Atonement, pp. 125–26.)
The sacrament thus becomes our type and symbol that we “may witness unto the Father that ye do always remember me,” with the promise that “if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you.” (3 Ne. 18:11.) It is also symbolic of the new requirement: “a sacrifice unto the Lord … in righteousness, even that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit.” (D&C 59:8.)
Thus the Lord commands us to “go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day … unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.” (D&C 59:9, 12.)
The Blood upon the Door.
“The Lord’s Passover” ritually commemorates the temporal deliverance of the firstborn sons of Israel and is at the same time symbolic of Israel’s spiritual deliverance from death and hell by Jesus Christ. Because of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart, the Lord, as a last resort, decreed that “all the firstborn [sons] in the land of Egypt shall die.” (Ex. 11:5.)
Moses was told, however, that Israel’s firstborn sons could be saved if the children of Israel obeyed certain specific requirements: each Israelite household was to kill a male lamb “without blemish,” take “of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door posts of the houses,” and finally, to “eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.” (Ex. 12:5–8.)
President John Taylor clarifies the purpose of this rite:
“When the destroying angel passed by the houses of the children of Israel he found the blood of a lamb sprinkled on the door post; which was a type of the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God. The angel who was the executor of justice could not touch those who were protected by that sacred symbol; because that prefigured the sacrifice of the Son of God. …
“But the first-born of the Egyptians, for whom no lamb as a token of the propitiation was offered, were destroyed. It was through the propitiation and atonement alone that the Israelites were saved, and, under the circumstances they must have perished with the Egyptians, who were doomed, had it not been for the contemplated atonement and propitiation of Christ, of which this was a figure.” (The Mediation and Atonement, pp. 106, 108.)
The Manna from Heaven.
Following their deliverance from Egyptian captivity, the Israelites turned to the desert and commenced their desert wanderings. Facing the eventuality of a long trek and no food, “the whole congregation … murmured against Moses. …” (Ex. 16:2.) Miraculously, the Lord provided a “bread from heaven.”
Temporally, this “daily bread” miracle sustained their physical needs. Spiritually, it typified the “true bread from heaven” that would be sent as the bread of life for all those who would receive him and his atoning sacrifice. Drawing upon this manna symbol, the Savior explains the significance of his supplying loaves and fishes for the five thousand:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. …
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:32, 51.)
The symbolism of the tree is widely used throughout the scriptures, typifying different principles. Lehi’s tree of life with its fruit is symbolic of the love of God and his condescension in providing his Only Begotten Son for all mankind. (See 1 Ne. 11:21–33.) Alma exhorted his listeners to nourish the word of God like a seed so that “it will become a tree, springing up in you unto everlasting life.” (See Alma 32; Alma 33:22–23.)
The cursing of the barren fig tree was used by the Savior as an instructive lesson that “its utter barrenness coupled with its abundance of foliage made of it a type of human hypocrisy.” (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 527.) Symbolically, it represented apostate Judaism, but the type may be extended to signify all who pretend to be pious without bearing the true fruits of spiritual life. In the kingdom of God, disciples of Christ, like trees, are known by the fruits they bear.
The foregoing types were summarized by the Savior’s allegory of the vine and the branches, which typified a dependent relationship to the Savior. As the branches of the tree receive their strength from the sap that flows from the trunk to its limbs, so it was that the humble Galilean apostles would receive their power as they abode in Christ and he in them. Without him, they were nothing. Accordingly, they were taught the following:
“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” (John 15:5.)
The application of this allegory does not stop with the apostles. President John Taylor made it applicable to every citizen of the kingdom of God:
“Just so with this people. When they [the saints] are doing their part—when they are magnifying their calling, living their religion, and walking in obedience to the Spirit of the Lord, they have a portion of his Spirit given to them to profit withal. And while they are humble, faithful, diligent, and observe the laws and commandments of God, they stand in their proper position on the tree: they are flourishing; the buds, blossoms, leaves, and everything about them are all right, and they form a part and parcel of the tree. …
“Just as that little twig is indebted for its life and vigour to the tree, so are you indebted entirely to the Lord for the light and intelligence you have received on every subject. You are indebted to the Spirit of God for your wisdom and intelligence, as much as the little twig is indebted to the tree for its vitality, leaves, buds, and fragrance.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 6, pp. 108, 110.)
The Sum of the Symbols.
Scriptural themes may be likened to the spokes on a wheel. Each spoke may be studied and analyzed from a different point of view, but all the spokes are linked to the same hub.
That hub is Christ. All things center in him. He stands as the focus of the total scriptural message, meaning, and symbolism. It is to him that we are admonished to look for strength and salvation. Our danger today is that we may stumble because of “looking beyond the mark.” (Jacob 4:14.)
Plainly and consistently, Christ in the scriptures exhorts mankind to—
- “Look unto me … for I am God. …” (Isa. 45:22.)
- Accept Christ as “the way” because “there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved. …” (2 Ne. 31:21.)
- “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” (D&C 6:36.)
And finally, the invitation of the Lord and Savior is extended to all men:
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30.)
As one who has come to know that Christ is the unifying message of all scripture, I bear testimony that the witness of all the apostles and prophets is true: Jesus is the Christ, and the gospel is the only means to “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59: 23.)
Items in the BMC Archive are made publicly available for non-commercial, private use. Inclusion within the BMC Archive does not imply endorsement. Items do not represent the official views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or of Book of Mormon Central.