King Benjamin had been praying for his people; in response, an angel appeared with an important announcement. The king then summoned his people to the temple to receive the angel's message in connection with a sacred name. The people embraced the angel's message, were born again, and entered into a holy covenant.
In this simple statement of basic facts from the Book of Mormon account, we discover at least four interesting questions: (1) What was Benjamin's role in the rebirth experience at the temple, and for what was he praying? (2) What was it the angel came to announce? (3) How would the name the king gave his people distinguish them from earlier Nephites, who, for five hundred years, anticipated the coming of Christ? (4) What was the nature of the change that the people received, and what does it all have to do with the mysteries of God? In the pursuit of answers to these questions, we will explore the nature of priesthood and its relationship to the mystery of spiritual rebirth.
The scriptures repeatedly invite the reader to inquire about and receive an understanding of the mysteries of God (see Alma 26:22; D&C 6:11; 42:61). Mysteries are spiritual realities that can be known and understood only by revelation because they exist outside man's sensory perception; but our scriptures record them, our prophets teach them, and the Holy Ghost reveals them to the diligent seeker. In fact, the whole gospel is a collection of mysteries—truths pertaining to salvation that would not be known by men in the mortal probation did God not reveal them. Benjamin's address begins with an invitation to prepare to view the mysteries of God:
My brethren, all ye that have assembled yourselves together, . . . I have not commanded you to come up hither to trifle with the words which I shall speak, but that you should hearken unto me, and open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view. (Mosiah 2:9)
The particular mystery that draws our attention here is the mystery of spiritual rebirth and the role that Benjamin's priesthood played in that experience. With respect to the revelation of mysteries and the power of the priesthood, the Lord has said:
The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (D&C 107:18–19)
In the first part of this paper we will examine Benjamin's priesthood role as a prelude to understanding his prayer, the angel's response, and the spiritual rebirth of his people.
A study of Benjamin's role gives opportunity to look at Benjamin's priesthood work in particular, but also at priesthood in general. Priesthood is the great governing authority of the universe. It unlocks spiritual blessings of the eternal world for the heirs of salvation. The power to play a saving role is the most sought-after power among righteous priesthood holders in time or in eternity. The greater the soul, it seems, the deeper the desire to labor to bring souls to Christ through causing them to take his name upon them (see, for example, Abraham 1:2–3). "What was the power of Melchisedeck?" Joseph Smith asked.
Twas not the priesthood of Aaron etc., [but it was the power of] a king and a priest to the most high God. [That priesthood was] a perfect law of Theocracy holding keys of power and blessings. [It] stood as God to give laws to the people, administering endless lives to the sons and daughters of Adam.1
The Prophet Joseph further explained:
[Priesthood] is the channel through which all knowledge, doctrine, the plan of salvation and every important matter is revealed from heaven. . . . It is the channel through which the Almighty commenced revealing his glory at the beginning of the creation of this earth and through which he has continued to reveal himself to the children of men to the present time and through which he will make known his purposes to the end of time.2
A brief look at the history of the priesthood on the earth reveals that men like Benjamin have stood in this priesthood channel unlocking the blessings of salvation for their people since the days of Adam. Adam, in fact, was the great prototype of priesthood holders who strove to bring their communities and their posterity into at-one-ment with the Lord Jesus Christ. Adam blessed his posterity because, the Prophet Joseph taught, "he wanted to bring them into the presence of God. They looked for a city . . . 'whose builder and maker is God' (Hebrews 11:10)."3
After Adam, Enoch labored with his people and succeeded in bringing to pass not only their sanctification, but also their translation (see Moses 7:21), a function of the higher priesthood.4 Following Enoch, Melchizedek, king and high priest of Salem, brought many into the fullness of the priesthood and the presence of God. His people also received translation, "obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch" (Genesis 14:34 JST).
After Melchizedek, Moses strove for the same blessings for his people. The Lord said to them: "If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people. . . . And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exodus 19:5–6), touching again on this idea of the holy city. Moses "sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord . . . swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory" (D&C 84:23–24). The Prophet Joseph explained: "Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into the presence of God, through the power of the Priesthood, but he could not."5
In this dispensation, Joseph Smith showed great anxiety to see the temple completed before his death, saying:
Hurry up the work, brethren. . . . Let us finish the temple; the Lord has a great endowment in store for you, and I am anxious that the brethren should have their endowments and receive the fullness of the Priesthood. . . . Then . . . the Kingdom will be established, and I do not care what shall become of me.6
Our modern prophets strive in the same manner as Benjamin did to sanctify the members of the church and to unlock these priesthood powers in their behalf. Elder David B. Haight made reference to this power as he recounted a sacred experience in which he viewed the Savior's ministry and came to a greater understanding of the power of the priesthood:
During those days of unconsciousness I was given, by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, a more perfect knowledge of His mission. I was also given a more complete understanding of what it means to exercise, in His name, the authority to unlock the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven for the salvation of all who are faithful.7
Thus Benjamin, as a prophet, seer, revelator, king, and priest, held the keys of power and blessing for his community. He had received all the accoutrements of the high priesthood: the sacred plates, the sword of Laban, the ball or director, and the Urim and Thummim.8 A priesthood holder's office is to sanctify himself and stand as an advocate before God seeking blessings for his community in the manner of the Lord Jesus Christ himself (see John 17:19), whether the community be as small as a family or as large as Benjamin's kingdom. A righteous priesthood holder can work by faith to provide great benefits to his fellow beings (see Mosiah 8:18). He can, in fact, exercise great faith in behalf of others of lesser faith, "filling in" with faith for them; thus a prophet and a people together can bring down blessings for even a whole community (for example, see Ether 12:14). The Lord seems to be interested not only in individuals but also in groups of people who wish to establish holy cities and unite with heavenly communities. Like the ancients, one who holds the holy priesthood is always trying to establish a holy community, is always "look[ing] for a city" (Hebrews 11:10, 16). So it was with Benjamin.
In analyzing the scriptural accounts of priesthood work, we discover that one major task of priesthood holders, in unlocking the blessings of salvation for their people, is to triumph over the powers of evil—over "enemies." Of this task, Joseph Smith said,
Salvation is nothing more nor less than to triumph over all our enemies and put them under our feet. And when we have power to put all enemies under our feet in this world, and a knowledge to triumph over all evil spirits in the world to come, then we are saved.9
This is the pattern: the priesthood holder labors with all his faculties to rout Satan from his loved ones as that enemy is manifested in contention, mental warfare, and physical violence among the people. For any Melchizedek priesthood holder to become a prince of peace, he must in some degree wrest his kingdom, great or small, from the adversary and halt the plans of the destroyer on behalf of his loved ones.10 The Book of Mormon's description of Melchizedek reflects this pattern:
Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness; But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; therefore he was called the prince of peace. (Alma 13:17–18)
In this priesthood pattern, Benjamin labored against manifest evil and spiritual entropy to save his people in the manner of Christ himself. He contended with the adversary at three main points: He waged war against the destroying Lamanites—using the sword of Laban, going forth in the strength of the Lord (see Words of Mormon 1:13–14); he waged another battle against false prophets, preachers, and teachers; and then he put down contention among his people with the assistance of other holy prophets. The record says, "King Benjamin, by laboring with all the might of his body and the faculty of his whole soul, . . . did once more establish peace in the land" (Words of Mormon 1:18). Peace, that essential condition for spiritual progress, is evidence of the triumph of spiritual principle and also of the preparation of the people in any size group to receive greater spiritual blessings.
Benjamin then was not an anomaly; he acted in the tradition of all true prophets before and after him in drawing down spiritual blessings on his people as he strove to prepare them to return to God. He was therefore the very person in Zarahemla who had the power to pray that spiritual blessings would be poured out on this community of saints that they might be born again.
Benjamin's people were descendants of those righteous Nephites who fled from the land of Nephi under Benjamin's father, King Mosiah1, and were led by the power of God to the land of Zarahemla, where they united with Zarahemla's people. Mosiah1 restored the gospel among them and reigned over them. The important point here is that Benjamin's people were not spiritually ignorant; they were not hearing about the Lord Jesus Christ for the first time. The record states clearly that they were "a diligent people in keeping the commandments of the Lord" (Mosiah 1:11); it states that there were not any among them, except little children, who had not been taught "concerning the . . . prophecies which have been spoken by the holy prophets" and all that the Lord commanded their fathers to speak (Mosiah 2:34; see 2:35).11 I assume here that Benjamin's people, having been taught the gospel, had been previously baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
In addition, we might infer that Benjamin's people came up to the temple with some preparation for and in some anticipation of a spiritual event. They would have been aware of what their kings had been trying to do for them according to the ancient pattern. They knew there was a blessing awaiting them. They came up to the temple, in part, to give thanks to God for their king "who had taught them to keep the commandments of God, that they might rejoice and be filled with love towards God and all men" (Mosiah 2:4).
The phrases, to rejoice and be filled with love and to be filled with joy, seem to have a technical meaning in scripture. They appear to be alternative ways of describing being born again. Scripture abounds with references to being filled with this transforming joy and love under the influence of the Holy Ghost. Nephi said, for example, "[God] hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh" (2 Nephi 4:21); the Lamanites were "filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory. . . . The Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire" (Helaman 5:44–45); the Nephites with the resurrected Christ "were filled with the Holy Ghost and with fire" (3 Nephi 19:13); Mormon taught us to pray to be filled with this love, which is charity, or perfect love, which makes one pure like Christ (see Moroni 7:48).
Compare now the account of Benjamin's people:
The Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them. (Mosiah 4:3)
It seems that being filled with joy, love, and glory are all ways of describing being born again. Benjamin clearly identified for the people what they had experienced: "Behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters" (Mosiah 5:7). He said that they had "come to the knowledge of the glory of God," as they "tasted of his love" (Mosiah 4:11). Elsewhere the Lord connects being born again with being a partaker of the glory of God. He says, "All those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn" (D&C 93:22).
One of the blessings of the priesthood is that it can bring others to be partakers of the glory of God. The Prophet Joseph taught that "being born again comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances."12 Angels, as priesthood holders, can also play a part. Indeed, as Alma taught, angels can be commissioned by God to cause "men to behold of [God's] glory" (Alma 12:29). Thus the angel said to Benjamin,
I am come to declare unto you the glad tidings of great joy. For the Lord hath heard thy prayers, and hath judged of thy righteousness, and hath sent me to declare unto thee that thou mayest rejoice; and that thou mayest declare unto thy people, that they may also be filled with joy. (Mosiah 3:3–4)
If to be filled with joy is closely related to being born again, then it would seem that the angel had come from God to authorize Benjamin to proceed with the endowment of the name and the rebirth. The angel declared that the time had come that these people might literally be "filled with joy" (Mosiah 4:3) and that "whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy" (Mosiah 3:13).
It was not just the news that the Savior would minister on the earth in the near future that filled them with joy—because they already knew all the prophecies of the holy prophets with respect to the Savior's ministry—but that the atonement was about to become very personal to them. Their faith in the Lord was about to become knowledge (see Mosiah 5:4). This joy announced by the angel was not to be just a momentary experience. If they were diligent unto prayer (see Moroni 8:26) and obedient to other instructions their king would give them, they would be changed forever, could retain this perfect love and joy in their hearts, and would even "grow in the knowledge of the glory of [God]" (Mosiah 4:12). We might infer then that these two parties—the king and the people—had been praying and preparing for the time when the whole community, in the ancient tradition, might be redeemed and born again.
Without doubt, Benjamin knew what was going to transpire as he told his son to summon the people to the temple. He said, "I shall give this people a name . . . that never shall be blotted out, except it be through transgression" (Mosiah 1:11–12). Giving them the name forever is equivalent to causing them to be born again into the family of Christ. Because of the greater responsibility inherent in the formal taking of the name, Benjamin prefaced this spiritual endowment with warnings that if they proceeded with taking the name but then turned away in disobedience, they would have to drink of the cup of the wrath of God (see Mosiah 3:26) and they would drink damnation to their souls (see Mosiah 3:18, 25). Benjamin quoted the angel's words, "When thou shalt have taught thy people the things which the Lord thy God hath commanded thee, even then are they found no more blameless in the sight of God" (Mosiah 3:22). In addition, it may be that Benjamin's words were especially binding on the people (as were the words of the later Nephi in 3 Nephi 7:17–18) because, in delivering the words of the angel, Benjamin spoke with the tongue of angels (see also 2 Nephi 31:13–14; 32:2–3) and "the word of God with power and with authority" (Words of Mormon 1:17).
Notwithstanding the warning, the people crossed the threshold of spiritual experience into a fearsome, spiritually induced view of the reality of their fallen condition, confronting their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. At the height of their distress, united under the influence of the Spirit, they cried aloud on the Lord's name and begged for a remission of sins (see Mosiah 4:20). In response, the Spirit of the Lord descended upon them, and they were "filled with joy," the record says, fulfilling the exact words and promise of the angel. Their hearts were purified as they received a remission of their sins and peace of conscience because of their "exceeding faith . . . in Jesus Christ" (Mosiah 4:3). Benjamin observed, "He has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy" (Mosiah 4:20).
In trying to comprehend the nature and extent of the spiritual experience described here in Mosiah, our own experience tells us, as do the scriptures, that spiritual experience can range from the gentle impressions of the Holy Spirit to dramatic encounters with heavenly powers. Thus, spiritual rebirth may begin at baptism, but without doubt additional degrees of spiritual rebirth and sanctification lie ahead for the true disciple, even a consummate change in which he has received the power to yield his heart entirely to God (see Helaman 3:35). The description in Mosiah suggests such a change. In addition, based on other scriptures about being born again, it seems that the people partook of the following blessings:
The full reception of the Holy Ghost is the key to rebirth. Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote:
Mere compliance with the formality of the ordinance of baptism does not mean that a person has been born again. No one can be born again without baptism, but the immersion in water and the laying on of hands to confer the Holy Ghost do not of themselves guarantee that a person has been or will be born again. The new birth takes place only for those who actually enjoy the gift or companionship of the Holy Ghost, only for those who are fully converted, who have given themselves without restraint to the Lord.13
These Nephites were "alive in Christ because they enjoy[ed] the companionship of the Spirit";14 they were immersed in the Spirit, which they had received as a constant possession.15
Brigham Young taught that when one has been proved, and labored, and occupied himself sufficiently upon obtaining the Spirit, if he would adhere to the Spirit of the Lord strictly, it should become in him a fountain of revelation.
After a while the Lord will say to such, "My son, you have been faithful, you have clung to good, and you love righteousness, and hate iniquity, from which you have turned away, and now you shall have the blessings of the Holy Spirit to lead you, and be your constant companion, from this time henceforth and forever." Then the Holy Spirit becomes your property, it is given to you for a profit, and an eternal blessing. It tends to addition, extension, and increase, to immortality and eternal lives.15
What is impressive here is that Benjamin's people were already commandment keepers. It is not a mighty change from evil to goodness that they have undergone, like Alma or Paul, but a profound transformation from basic goodness to something that exceeded their ability even to describe. This much they did say, "The Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent . . . has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2).
What then distinguished Benjamin's community "above all the people which the Lord God hath brought out of the land of Jerusalem" (Mosiah 1:11)? Perhaps this was the first time among all the people brought out from the land of Jerusalem that a king and priest—in the tradition of Adam, Enoch, and Melchizedek—had succeeded in bringing his people to this point of transformation: he had caused them as a community actually to receive the name of Christ.
But what does it mean to receive the name of Christ? We remember that when we take the sacrament, we signify not that we have fully taken the name, but that we are willing to take the name (see Moroni 4:3; D&C 20:77; compare Mosiah 5:5). Elder Dallin Oaks emphasized the word willingness, pointing to a future consummation:
The Lord and his servants referred to the . . . temple as a house for "the name" of the Lord God of Israel (see 1 Kgs. 3:2; 5:5; 8:16–20, 29, 44, 48; 1 Chr. 22:8–10, 19; 29:16; 2 Chr. 2:4; 6:5–10, 20, 34, 38).
. . . In the inspired dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple, the Prophet Joseph Smith asked the Lord for a blessing upon "thy people upon whom thy name shall be put in this house" (D&C 109:26).
. . . [B]y partaking of the sacrament we witness our willingness to participate in the sacred ordinances of the temple and to receive the highest blessings available through the name and by the authority of the Savior when he chooses to confer them upon us.16
Elder Bruce R. McConkie also wrote about the meaning of receiving the divine name: "God's name is God. To have his name written on a person is to identify that person as a god. How can it be said more plainly? Those who gain eternal life become gods!"17 On another occasion Elder McConkie linked becoming a son or daughter of God with temple ordinances: "The ordinances that are performed in the temples are the ordinances of exaltation; they open the door to us to an inheritance of sonship; they open the door to us so that we may become sons and daughters, members of the household of God in eternity. . . . They open the door to becoming kings and priests and inheriting all things."18
In connection with being born again, Benjamin's people may have received something of a temple endowment. In fact, we find in Benjamin's discourse essential temple themes pertaining to the creation, fall, atonement, consecration, and covenant making. Benjamin's last words pertain to being "sealed" to Christ and receiving eternal life (see Mosiah 5:15). Of course, important endowment elements are missing from the record, but had they been administered on this occasion, or at some later point, they would not, because of their sacred nature, have been included in our present Book of Mormon account. Nevertheless, King Benjamin's people received an endowment of spiritual knowledge and power which took them from being good people to Christlike people—all in a temple setting. What they experienced through the power of the priesthood was a revelation of Christ's nature and the power to be assimilated to his image.
For all the questions that may remain unanswered, the account of Benjamin's people is compelling in its promise of that which awaits the diligent seeker of Christ. Ultimately, many spiritual questions are answered only after one's own personal experience, to which experience the Lord generously extends invitation. The Lord said on one occasion to a group of saints, "Ye are not able to abide the presence of God now, neither the ministering of angels; wherefore, continue in patience until ye are perfected" (D&C 67:13); but he also taught: "Seek the face of the Lord always, that in patience ye may possess your souls, and ye shall have eternal life" (D&C 101:38). The message encourages diligence as well as patience for the fulfillment of the promise.
It is the privilege and responsibility of a community's priesthood leader, through exercising mighty faith and laboring with his people, to bring them to a higher spiritual plane in their quest to return to God. Benjamin had been praying that the Lord would send his power to bring to pass a spiritually transforming experience for his people. The Lord sent his angel to declare to the king that power would be given to cause the people to be spiritually reborn, to become sons and daughters of Christ, and to receive the sacred name forever. The spiritual rebirth as a community and the taking of the name in a temple setting distinguished them from those whom the Lord had previously brought out of Jerusalem. The people tasted the glory of God and came to a personal knowledge of him; through the power of the Holy Spirit they experienced the mighty change of heart and the mystery of spiritual rebirth.
Much of the Book of Mormon is devoted to that comprehensive and mighty change described here in Mosiah. That may be the reason President Benson pled with us to feast on this book. He wrote, "When we awake and are born of God, a new day will break and Zion will be redeemed. May we be convinced that Jesus is the Christ, choose to follow Him, be changed for Him, captained by Him, consumed in Him, and born again."19