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This book, 4 Nephi, has only one chapter, but it is packed. It repeats the whole pattern of the entire Book of Mormon, that people are happy and well when they are obedient to the Savior and that there is peace when people love and care for each other. It’s that simple.
But there is also more than that: the people need each other. They do not need their dramas and their intrigue. They do not need their wars and battles. But they do need each other. It’s the profound lesson of the entire Book of Mormon, the hidden climax, the moment where you step back and realize that it’s not about whether the Nephites or the Lamanites win, but that they need each other to win, together.
It begins several years after the Savior visited the Nephites.
“And as many as did come unto them, and did truly repent of their sins, were baptized in the name of Jesus; and they did also receive the Holy Ghost” (verse 1).
The evidence of those who were truly converted, who had the Holy Spirit as their guide and were obedient to those promptings, was that the people were no longer sucked down into “contentions and disputations” (verse 2). There was peace, regardless of past traditions, no matter nationality, no matter who had been on what side before. There was peace.
Making peace is more than just not-fighting. Making peace is caring for others, loving them, and serving them. It is sharing with each other, and making sure everyone has what they need, and doing so without any oppression (verse 3). This is what maintained the peace that the Savior had established (verse 4).
The disciples continued their work: healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and all kinds of miracles in the name of Jesus (verse 5).
As the years passed, the people were obedient to what they had learned. As they cared for each other well, and worked together at making and keep peace, even many of the cities were rebuilt (verses 7-8) – though some cities had sunk under water and could not be rebuilt (verse 9). The people were blessed and grew strong, and increased through marriages (verse 11), and “became an exceedingly fair and delightsome people” (verse 10).
They did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God, continuing in fasting and prayer, and in meeting together oft both to pray and to hear the word of the Lord (verse 12).
Obedient to the Lord, the people had miracles instead of contention (verse 13).
But notice the miracles were for the disciples. The miracles were not for those living off the peace of the land, or benefiting from the blessings of the hard work of others. The miracles were for those who did the hard work of truly being a disciple. This was held sacred, private, and close – the full details are not shared, the book only gets one chapter. But in comparison we have the details of those who tried to fake their way into the same power, giving false impressions of knowledge or power to make themselves important – rather than being chosen by God because of the hard work of preparing for God. Hugh Nibley described this phenomenon this way:
What do the Nephites do after they reach this condition? The only scene open to them after that, he talks about. He talks about mighty miracles. Now we have a very interesting thing that’s going on repeatedly to a small nucleus of brethren, the brotherhood, that have this superior knowledge. They perform these miracles among themselves. The rest of them don’t. They’re just a normal society of people behaving themselves at last. But you see they get mentioned quite often here in significant situations. The only scene was the realm of mighty miracles. That’s a world we know not of, you see. They were not ordinary people but something beyond our reach. Again, they’re called the disciples of Jesus, and they appear as a very special group in this book. We are told in verse 13, “There were mighty miracles wrought among the disciples of Jesus,” not just by the disciples but they were wrought among them. Apparently not among the rest, though the rest were all members of the church. It tells us in the second verse that they’d all been converted, yet the mighty miracles were limited to this group among the disciples of Christ. They had knowledge, powers, and understandings beyond the rest. This has always been an ongoing tradition in human history—that there are human groups, isolated people, both men and women, who possess knowledge above the others which is kept secret. The idea is that it couldn’t be shared without becoming corrupted, misunderstood, or lost, in other words. That’s what the Lord tells the disciples when he meets with them behind closed doors. He says, don’t tell these things to the others. It’s like giving pearls to the swine and throwing your food to the dogs. They wouldn’t appreciate it at all. It would just make them sick, and it would be lost on them. There’s nothing wrong with them, but this is something special.
This idea of special groups guarding their secrets, this esoteric [information], naturally led to the idea of all sorts of fake societies, all sorts of cultists. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, it just became a rash. Everybody and his dog was joining these secret societies, with freemasonry taking the lead. They were trying to invest themselves in an air of mystery, of superior knowledge that others didn’t possess, etc. But Joseph Smith actually did possess such knowledge, and if you don’t believe it, look at the Book of Mormon. He gave us that. But it’s very common for people to fake this for escapism—to escape the dullness of life and to make a big show to enhance one’s importance. You’re going to get this all the time. We have secrecy in business, government, and all sorts of things to give us this air of superior knowledge. All governments today are becoming secret government. It’s nonsense and it’s dangerous.
We see this happen as the generations pass. It unfolds as fewer and fewer people do the hard work to become, and more and more people just want the power without doing the work (and misuse the power they do have). The contrast starts in verse 14, when new disciples are ordained. The people had peace because they were obedient and cared for each other, because they kept their covenants, “because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people” (verse 15)… They had no envy, no strife, no lying, no lasciviousness, no robbers, and no murderers (verses 16, 17). “Surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (verse 16). They were simply one people, “the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (verse 17).
And how blessed were they! For the Lord did bless them in all their doings; yea, even they were blessed and prospered… and there was no contention in the land (verse 18).
Nephi kept his records until he passed them down to his son Amos (verse 19). During the time of Amos, the people continued in peace until there was “a small part of the people who had revolted from the church” (verse 20). Amos passed the sacred records on to his son, Amos (Junior) (verse 21). As the people followed the teachings of the Savior, they multiplied and prospered (verse 23).
All these years pass, but we are told nothing of the times and events, as Nibley says, because it was happiness and joy and there is no plot to tell in this grim record meant to warn us. There is no warning to share from the lives of these people, because they did it well, and they did it right. No drama, no story.
We start to get the story again when the drama picks back up, when the people start being foolish again – and so our warning comes by showing us what not to do if we want to keep our peace, our happiness.
We see that as the people began to prosper, now two hundred years since the Savior visited the people, they began to fall into pride. They wore expensive clothes, and jewels, “and the fine things of the world” (verse 24). When they began to focus on this, they no longer shared with each other (verse 25), and so the people began again to be divided by classes of those who were rich and those who were not (verse 26). The proud people tried to make the church a political machine controlled by those with money (verse 26), even denying the gospel, even receiving “all manner of wickedness, and administer(ing) that which was sacred unto him to whom it had been forbidden because of unworthiness” (verse 27). In this way, they let Satan “get hold upon their hearts”, and they began to grow because of iniquity” (verse 28).
This separated the churches into the one who denied the Christ, and the church who professed Christ. The church that denied Christ persecuted the church that professed Christ, and did not like their miracles (verse 29). The church that denied Christ even tried to put the disciples into prison, “but by the power of the word of God, which was in them, the prisons were rent in twain” (verse 30). But still, even then, the people hardened their hearts, trying to kill the leaders of the church just as the Savior had been killed (verse 31). They tried burning the disciples, but the disciples were not hurt (verse 32). They tried feeding them to the wild beasts, but the disciples played with them “even as a child with a lamb” (verse 33).
The more the people began to deny the Savior and refuse His prophets, the disciples, the more they did “dwindle in unbelief and wickedness” (verse 34). This caused greater and greater division among the people (verse 35), which lead to more and more contention – which is never of God. Once again the people were separated into believers (Nephites) and non-believers (Lamanites) (verse 36-38). The Lamanites began to teach their children to hate the believers, thus repeating the same mistake their ancestors had done against Nephi (verse 39). These children grew up to be full of hatred and pride (verses 40-41). Now that a whole generation was numb to hatred, and driven by their own pride, it was easy for the Gadianton combinations to be embraced again (verse 42), even so much that many of the Nephites fell like the Lamanites (verse 43).
And from this time, the disciples began to sorrow for the sins of the world (verse 44).
By the time three hundred years had passed since the Savior was born, all the people had fallen, so much that the Nephites even were as bad as the Lamanites, “exceedingly wicked one like unto another” (verse 45). Gadianton robbers once again spread all over the land, with no righteous people left except for the disciples (verse 46).
When Amos, Jr., passed away, his brother Ammaron kept the sacred records (verse 47), until being told by the Holy Spirit to “hide up the records which were sacred” (verse 48). He hid them as the Lord instructed, that they might later be restored to the descendants of Jacob “according to the prophecies and the promises of the Lord” (verse 49).