On October 3, 1918 President Joseph F. Smith received a revelation from Jesus Christ. Concerning that vision he wrote, "I wondered at the words of Peter-wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah-and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time. And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead. And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets" (D&C 138:28-32).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declares that it is the only true Church of Christ on the earth. However, today more and more Christian denominations teach that the real Church of Christ is not a literal physical organization but instead is a spiritual house where each true believer in Christ is a living stone in its construction (1 Peter 2:5). Thus, to them, the true Church of Christ can be found wherever two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus (Matthew 18:20).
By way of contrast, the LDS Church teaches that while Jesus was on the earth He set up a definite organizational structure that was "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets [with] Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone" (Ephesians 2:20). This organization also included "some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers" (Ephesians 4:11) as well as deacons and elders.
Yet, even though there may be disagreements over whether Jesus established a church organization, all consider Him to be a divine teacher and the perfect preacher of the gospel. However, there is considerable disagreement as to whether Jesus after "being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit… went and preached unto the spirits in prison which [spirits] sometimes were disobedient when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water" (I Peter 3:18-20).
Some people say that Christ couldn't have preached to those who were in hell because after He died on the cross the scriptures tell us that He went to paradise (Luke 23:43), which is understood by many to mean heaven. Others say that He didn't preach to those in hell because there is no record of any of them being converted. Furthermore, they argue, that there can be no salvation after death (Hebrews 9:27) therefore, it would have been useless for Christ to have preached the gospel to the ungodly. Still others say that the correct translation is that Jesus "heralded" the gospel to those who were in hell, thereby confirming their damned condition, however, most modern translations don't agree with this interpretation.
There are others who say that Jesus didn't preach to those in hell but rather preached to disobedient "spirits." Since Satan and his angels are spirits, it is said by some that Jesus went and preached to the disobedient angels who were kicked out of heaven. But there are others who say that the word "quicken," refers to the resurrection of Christ's body, therefore they conclude that Jesus preached to those in hell after His resurrection rather than before He rose from the grave.
As we can see, there is considerable disagreement among biblical scholars as to what Peter meant in these verses of scripture. Therefore, it's no wonder that President Joseph F. Smith had questions himself when he read these words. What God revealed to him was that Jesus didn't personally go into hell where the wicked were and preach the gospel to them but rather, while in the paradise region of departed spirits, "he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead." In other words, while His body lay in the grave, Jesus went to the place where the souls of all the righteous go after death - known as paradise - and there set up or created a missionary organization whose purpose was to take the gospel to "all the spirits of men" who were dead, including the souls of the wicked who were in hell.
While at first glance, this may not seem like a very significant revelation, upon further examination it reveals a very consistent pattern of how God operates as well as gives us a greater understanding of Christ's role in the plan of salvation. To help us see why, we can begin by looking at the earthly life of Jesus.
Most people view Jesus when He lived among men as being primarily an evangelist. That is to say, they view His main purpose on earth as being that of a teacher who went about the countryside preaching the gospel and bringing people to a knowledge of salvation. In fact, we rely on His words today for our understanding on how to become saved. As far as His miracles are concerned, most people think of them as being a secondary, or incidental part of His ministry, and the same is true of how people view Him calling apostles. However, a careful review of His ministry shows a different picture.
Nowhere in the scriptures is there any indication that Jesus began teaching the gospel until He was at least thirty years old and then only after He had been baptized and then spent forty days fasting in the wilderness. When He came out of the wilderness he first went back to His home town of Nazareth and there began His preaching. But He was not well received so within a short time He went north to the town of Capernacum to continue His ministry.
Although He had considerable success there and His fame began to quickly spread, it wasn't long before Jesus traveled south along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, stopping to preach the gospel as large crowds of people followed Him. It was during this time that He met four fishermen named Peter, James, John, and Andrew who then followed Him as he continued going from town to town preaching the gospel. However, within months of beginning His ministry Jesus called twelve men to be apostles (see Luke 4:1-6:13).
Because we have a tendency to focus on the teachings of Jesus, we tend to overlook the significance of the apostles at this point in time. As Jesus continued going from place to place teaching and performing miracles, the twelve apostles were with Him watching, observing, and being further instructed by Jesus. As such, they were receiving on the job training of how to teach the gospel themselves.
Before long, Jesus "called unto him his twelve disciples [and] gave them power", then sent them out on their own for a short time (Matthew 10:1-42, Mark 3:14,15). When their ministry was over they returned and reported back to Jesus on the fruits of their labors (Luke 9:10) but their travels had provided them with valuable experience and training for what they would someday have to do on their own after Jesus had ascended into heaven.
In time, Jesus also sent seventy other people out to preach the gospel with the same instructions to return and report back to Him (Luke 10:1,17). Many of the parables Jesus told were misunderstood by the great majority of people but to His apostles He explained all things. In addition to this we read of many private instructions that Jesus gave to His apostles that He did not give to the people in general. And, in fact, it is these private teachings that we depend upon today for our understanding of Christ's message.
Thus, what we see is that early in His ministry Jesus not only began to quickly set up His church organization but to personally train His future leaders. As such, His ministry was more about providing a show-and-tell method of learning to the new officers of His church than it was about Him seeking to spread the message of salvation to the world by Himself.
Shortly before His death, "Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain and was transfigured before them" (Matthew 17:1,2). While there these three men saw Jesus in His full glory, heard the Father testify that Jesus was His beloved Son, and saw Moses and Elijah. These three mortal men had become special witnesses of Christ's divinity in a way that no other human at that time could claim. More than that, the LDS Church further teaches that Peter, James, and John received special keys needed to fulfill their duties as the future leaders of Christ's church.
But once the apostles had been trained and had been given all the power and authority they needed, Jesus had one more important duty to perform before His mission on earth was complete. Within a short time of His being transfigured, Jesus returned to Jerusalem for the last time in mortality. Less than a week later, He had completed His atoning sacrifice and, having accomplished all that He was required to do, His presence on earth was no longer needed
After His resurrection Jesus returned and continued to further privately instruct the apostles and then, forty days later, just before He ascended into heaven He gave them the command, "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:18,20).
Nearly all biblical scholars are agreed that the ministry of Jesus lasted a short three years and during that time, Jesus did not travel outside the Palestine area. In fact, most of His teaching took place in the northern province of Palestine known as Galilee, which, at its extreme length is about 60 miles long and at its extreme width is about 40 miles wide. The entire province of Galilee covers approximately 1000 square miles, which works out to an area equal to 31.7 miles long by 31.7 miles wide. What this illustrates is that Jesus confined His teachings to a very small geographical area of the world. Obviously, then, His intent was not to spread the gospel to the world Himself. He intentionally left that up to those apostles whom He had chosen and those that succeeded them.
Furthermore, of all the prophets mentioned in Holy writ, the ministry of Jesus was the shortest. Moses was a prophet for forty years and Isaiah was a prophet under three kings of Judah. Scholars say that Jesus died at Jerusalem in 33 A.D. and history shows that Peter died in Rome around 64 A.D. more than thirty years later. Tradition holds that Matthew was stoned to death in Colchis and Philip was put to death in Heirapolis in 80 A.D. Thomas was killed in Asia in 72 A.D. and John died in the city of Ephesus somewhere between 95 A.D. to 102 A.D. Nearly all the apostles had a longer ministry than Jesus and all of them traveled much further than Jesus did. In fact, before he was arrested Paul had plans to go as far north as Spain (Romans 15:24).
What we see then is that as soon as Jesus had called, empowered with authority, and trained church leaders to act in His place, He ended His preaching ministry. It wasn't until after Christ's resurrection, that the gospel was actually taken to the world.
When Jesus appeared to the Nephites, He spent two days teaching them, but the first thing He did was to call twelve disciples to head His church (3 Nephi 11:18-22, 12:1). It was after then that He instructed them and the people on the correct principles of the gospel. Thus, what we see is that the purpose of Jesus visiting mortal men was not so much to be a teacher of truth - which He was - but rather to establish and organize His church. While teaching of the gospel was an important part of His duties, it was nonetheless secondary to His main focus, which was to set up an organization that would carry the message of salvation to the world.
In modern times the Lord revealed Himself to Joseph Smith in 1820, however this young boy needed considerable instruction in learning the true gospel message. Much of that learning came from translating the Book of Mormon. In May of 1829 Joseph was empowered with the authority of the Aaronic Priesthood and shortly thereafter he was empowered with the authority of the Melchchizedek priesthood. In the early Spring of 1830 the Book of Mormon was published and on April 6, 1830 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized. It wasn't until after then that the restored gospel message went forth among the children of men.
As we look at role that Jesus has in the plan of salvation, we see that His primary duty seems to be setting in place a church organization whose function is to spread the gospel. Although He is at the head of this church, His role is not so much to do the work of salvation Himself as it is to direct those whom He has called to carry out this work for Him. And this is exactly what President Joseph F. Smith learned in 1908 concerning Christ's visit to the spirit world.
While His mortal body lay in the grave, Jesus went to Hades, or the world where the souls of all departed spirits go after death, and there He called, organized, empowered, and taught people to becomes leaders in a church whose purpose was to preach the gospel to those who had died so they could be judged by the same standard as those who have heard the gospel here on earth (1 Peter 4:6).
The reason why it only took Jesus three days to do that instead of three years is because He called those who already knew the gospel - the ancient prophets, such as Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. Furthermore, many of these men already had experience in being strong spiritual leaders. And the same was true of those Nephites whom Jesus called when He visited them after His resurrection. Nephi was already the head of the church before Christ called him to be the first of the twelve disciples. Therefore, he only needed a minimal amount of training and instruction.
On the other hand, the original apostles in the Palestine area were ordinary men with little or no experience in leadership positions. Four of them were fishermen in business for themselves, one was a tax collector, and one was a tent maker. The others were of similar background experience. Although all of them were very religious, none of them properly understood the gospel principles. Therefore, it took Christ three years to sufficiently prepare them to assume their leadership duties unlike those He called among the Nephites or those in the spirit world.
But there was something else that President Smith saw in his vision that is very revealing about the plan of salvation. He wrote, "I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them… [yet] the gospel [was] preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets."
In the Book of Mormon we are told, "For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors… therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed" (Alma 34:32,33).
Many people have interpreted this passage as saying that if we reject the gospel in this life and die we will not be given another chance to accept it in the spirit world. It is commonly taught that only those who have never heard the gospel while living in mortality will be given the opportunity to hear and accept the gospel in the spirit world. However, that is not what President Smith witnessed. Notice that he said he saw that the gospel was preached among those "who had rejected the truth… having rejected the prophets." In other words, he said that the gospel is being preached even to those who once had the truth delivered to them by the prophets but rejected it.
This is consistent with the way the gospel is preached here on earth. All Christian missionaries, regardless of their faith, constantly go back and teach the gospel to those who did not initially accept it. There are untold stories of people who refused to accept the gospel message for years but who eventually embraced it. Even among those who once accepted the message of salvation but then fell away from its teachings, all churches continually reach out to bring such wayward people back into the fold.
If we give people in this life multiple chances to accept the gospel and never give up on them or consider anyone as being beyond hope, then it is inconsistent with a loving God to refuse those in the next life the same opportunity to hear the gospel as often as possible just as happens to people in this life. If that is not true, then it cannot be said that the dead are being judged by the same standard as those who are living. If the living are given many chances to accept the gospel then the same standard must exist among those who are alive in the world of the dead. If life continues after death and so does the preaching of the gospel, then those who did not accept the gospel in this life must continue to have the same opportunity of having the gospel preached to them in the spirit world just as people do in this life. And, indeed, that is exactly what President Smith saw.
The 138th section of the Doctrine and Covenants not only contains the account of a remarkable vision but it also gives us a greater understanding of the importance of Christ's church in the plan of salvation and Christ's role as the head of that church as well us showing us the extent that God goes to in order for everyone to have every opportunity to receive and accept the gospel so that none may perish (2 Peter 3:9).
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