Nicodemus – Coward or Heroic Convert

In a few weeks we are teaching New Testament lesson 5, which focuses on two of the most powerful examples of the savior’s personal ministry: His night sermon with Nicodemus, and his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well.  Today, as I was reading about Nicodemus, I was strongly intrigued by his character and the way his story is told.

One thing I find especially intriguing about Nicodemus is that his life can be read in two distinct ways. In the first and perhaps more traditional way of viewing his life, Nicodemus was an individual who tragically could never fully commit to the savior. though the savior personally bore witness to him of his divinity. Nicodemus tepidly stands up for the savior before the Sanhedrin before ultimately backing down, and gives him a gift of embalming spices after his crucifixion — Too little too late. Nicodemus fails to live up to his full potential because he fears for his social prestige and position. This article lays out the scriptural case for this take on Nicodemus.  This interpretation has been propounded by several general authorities including most prominently Spencer W. Kimball

President Kimball powerfully spoke of Nicodemus and his lost potential: ”

O my brother, opportunity’s doors are closing. Why can’t you understand? Too many materialistic obstacles? He knows your influence, wealth, erudition, your exalted place in community, in government, in the powerful church group. . . . Your decision seems weighted with earthly treasures and the plaudits of men and the conveniences of affluence. My heart weeps for you, friend Nicodemus. You seem such a good man, philanthropic, kind, generous. You could have been such a power in the Lord’s kingdom. You had a spark of desire. It could have been kindled into a living flame. You might have been one of his seventies, to proselyte as an advance agent, or an apostle, or even the President of his Church. You might have filled the vacancy when Matthias was called or have been an apostle to the gentiles with Paul and suffered with him in his perils of the sea, among robbers, in prisons, in his beatings and stonings, and even in his death. How little we realize the doors of opportunity which we oft close with one wrong decision. But the price was too high, wasn’t it, man of wealth?”

On the other hand, others read the same verses and see Nicodemus as a courageous individual who converted to the savior and ultimately gave everything for him. Those who favor this interpretation see Nicodemus coming at night to the savior not as an act of cowardice, but instead motivated by a desire to speak one on one with the savior at a less crowded time. They see Nicodemus as putting his life on the line by standing up in the Sanhedrin, and then publicly declaring his belief in the savior by helping prepare him for burial. This article lays out the case for this interpretation. Other leaders of the Church, most prominently Bruce R. McConkie who explained that “We are left to assume that following his interview with Jesus, the processes of conversion continued to operate in the life of Nicodemus.” (Mortal Messiah 1:471). “The faith which had once required the curtain of darkness can now venture at least into the light of sunset, and [be] brightened finally into noonday confidence.” (Mortal Messiah 4: Chapter 109) McConkie relies on possible historical sources which suggest that Nicodemus was a wealthy man who eventually lost all of his fortune and his social position, presumably by following Christ. .

I admit that I personally am far more sympathetic to the more optimistic account. I love to imagine Nicodemus gradually becoming more and more confident in his testimony. I love to imagine in line with Catholic tradition that he was baptized by the apostles and ultimately martyred for his testimony. However, regardless of which version is ultimately correct (or if the truth is somewhere in the middle), I think the story of Nicodemus teaches some powerful truths.

Each of us will have moments in our lives when we will come face to face with the savior. Each of us will be called to sacrifice some things that we care deeply about. We might have to give up popularity of the world. We might have to lose friends. Yet, Christ’s invitation to one and all is to follow him and be baptized and be born again as a disciple. Our choices in those moments determine destiny. Nicodemus faced the choice. He could either be a coward or a hero. Whatever he chose, that same choice standards before us. We must make the choice to follow Christ fully, or to stand on the sidelines and watch.

President Kimball powerfully bore witness of this point:

Now, my beloved, listening friends, you too are generous and kind. You too are prayerful and religious. But are you also like Nicodemus, burdened down with preconceived and prejudiced notions? Do you think that no good thing can come out of Nazareth (John 1:46), or Palmyra, or Salt Lake City? Are you too biased to accept new truth? Too wealthy and fettered with the cares of this world to accept the difficult demands of Christ’s Church? Are you so influential as to fear to prejudice your position or local influence? Are you too weak to accept and carry a load of service? Are you too busy to study and pray and learn of Christ and his program? Are you too materialistically trained to accept the miracles, visions, prophets, and revelations?

If any of you, my listeners, is a modern Nicodemus, I beg of you to grasp the new world of truths. Your Lord Jesus Christ pleads with you:

My true Church is restored to earth with my saving doctrines.
I have placed in authoritative positions apostles and others divinely called, and in leadership a prophet who today receives my divine revelations.
Churches are many, but they are churches of men, not mine.
Creeds are numerous, but they are not of my authorship.
Organizations are everywhere, but they are not organized nor accepted by me.
Pretended and usurping representatives are legion, but I called them not; nor do I recognize their ordinances. My second coming is near at hand.

. . . I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne . . .
He that hath an ear let him hear (Rev. 3:20-22).

This testimony I bear, in the name of Jesus Christ our Master. Amen.”

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Reactions to My Husband is not Gay

My wife and I watched the highly highly controversial TLC special My Husband is not Gay tonight along with some friends of ours. I think uniformly, our reaction to the show was that it certainly wasn’t as good as it could have been, but also wasn’t as bad as it had the potential to be. Our main criticism was that the interactions within and between the couples just felt inauthentic and inappropriate at times.A lot of that might be skewed by the bias of those filming and what they were hoping to see.

For those who haven’t been following the show, it focuses on three mixed orientation marriages in Salt Lake City as well as a single adult with same-sex attraction. In each, the husband has same-sex attraction but does not identify as Gay. Each seem to be happy and successful. I enjoyed seeing the couples and thought they had a good relationship with each other. I thought that there were some very positive aspects of the show. Mostly, I loved that it showed that a healthy and loving relationship could exist in such a situation.

However, there were a lot of problems with the show that took away from the positive message:

First of all, practically the only thing the three couples talk about throughout the show is same-sex attraction. We learn very little about them aside from that. We learn that one of the husbands is a nurse and that his wife is pregnant after having a miscarriage. Other than that, we know little to nothing about their occupations, hobbies, callings etc. Instead, in practically every seen we see them talking about same-sex attraction (or SSA as they call it – I was also bothered by how the couple’s continually referred to their attractions as SSA. Not same sex attraction … SSA) They repeatedly used this acronym to the exclusion of other terms. ). This was very strange to me and perpetuates stereotypes of these men as repressed and obsessed with their attractions.

This was especially problematic in the scenes where the men spent time together. They continually spoke about the guys around them that they found attractive. They developed a danger scale to rank guys on attractiveness from 1-4. They even joked about how attractive they found men around their wives. I found this incredibly distasteful. I would never think about talking to my wife about how attractive I was to the waitress or to someone I met at the gym. I would never joke with guy friends about wanting to sleep with another women, or how hot she was on the danger scale. The couples claimed that this openness was helpful for them, but you could see the hurt on the wive’s faces as these conversations proceeded. There are just certain things that one should not to in a committed relationship or marriage. Such conversations seem to me to invariably lead to jealously and trouble.

Indeed, I was generally bothered by how much these couples talked and joked about sex and sexuality. Especially knowing the church culture, this seemed quite inappropriate. It seemed like being attracted to people of the same sex was an excuse to repeatedly joke about things that otherwise would be completely taboo. Of course, having a support network is helpful, but it seemed that here the support network of these couples instead obsessively focused their thoughts on sex, sexuality and attraction.

Probably the worst moment of the show was when one of the husbands discussed with his wife a camping trip he wanted to go on with some guy friends. His wife interrogated him about who the guys were. This really grated me, because it just felt like it perpetuated the stereotype that guys who are attracted to guys of the same sex cannot have healthy relationships with those of the same-sex. Especially if someone is going on a trip with a group of supportive guys, it seemed really strange to have the wife so lacking in trust.

I think a lot of these problems that I raise are ones that are made worse by the choice of those filming. Most of all, they reflected the choice of those producing the show to only focus on three couples who all saw their sexuality in the same way. I wish they would have shown couples where the husband does identity as gay,or even more of those who chose otherwise. I would have loved to see couples who did not spend all their time with other couples with the same challenges and see these couples interacting with other friends and members of their wards and communities. The myopic focus of the show was distorting and problematic.

Zacharias and Joseph Smith

Today in Sunday School we learned about Zacharias the father of John the Baptist, and his vision in the Temple. As we were discussing, I had an interesting thought about the nature of his vision and the multiple accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision:

From Luke 1:

 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

 14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.

 15 For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.

 16 And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God.

 17 And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedientto the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

 18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.

 19 And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings.

 20 And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thoubelievest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

What is so interesting about this vision, is that the angel immediately begins by offering a message of comfort to Zacharias, and emphasizing that his prayers to God had been heard. Next, the angel first speaks about the personal happiness that will come to Zacharias and his wife as a result of the birth of John. He only later turns to John’s impact on others, and mentions that others will rejoice at his birth. The angel mentions portions of John’s mission, but from this account this might only be a partial account. The angel makes no reference to Jesus for instance, and John’s role in baptizing the savior.

In contrast, when Zacharias’s mouth is loosed after the naming of John, his prophecy is focused completely on the public aspects of John’s ministry:

 67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,

 68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited andredeemed his people,

 69 And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;

 70 As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began:

 71 That we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us;

 72 To perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant;

 73 The oath which he sware to our father Abraham,

 74 That he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear,

 75 In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

 76 And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

 77 To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by theremission of their sins,

 78 Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspringfrom on high hath visited us,

 79 To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

It seems likely due to this prophecy that Zacharias recieved far more information from the angel than is initially reported. While it is possible that these details came through additional visitations, prayer, or revelation, it still seems likely that angel imparted far more knowledge than is reported in Luke.

I would suggest that there is a parallel here with Joseph Smith’s telling of the First Vision. On his initial tellings of the vision, Joseph Smith focused far more on the personal aspects of the visitation. Like Zacharias (or Luke speaking of Zacharias) it is likely that he did not speak of all that was said to him. instead, he focused on his sins being forgiven, and his personal standing before God. Yet, as Joseph wrote his most public account for the History of the Church (the one that we are most familiar with), he focused much more on the public aspects of his calling and his role as prophet.

 Luke’s telling of the Story of Zacharias rings true with the nature of humanity and human memory as does Joseph Smith’s telling of his first vision. I have a testimony that both truly were called of God and given special revelation and insight from angelic messengers.

Ezra Taft Benson – The Great Commandment Love the Lord

This year in Elder’s Quorum and Relief Society, we are studying a manual of teachings of the Prophet Ezra Taft Benson. While Benson is often criticized by those who disagree with his politics, when I read about his life and ministry I see a man called and inspired of God for his time. Just as Brigham Young was uniquely qualified to lead the saints to the west, Benson was uniquely qualified to serve as an Apostle and Prophet in the era of communism. I am grateful that Heavenly Father calls inspired men and gives them the insights and inspiration they need for our day.

I especially loved the lesson that we had today. It focused on Benson’s teachings regarding the First Great Commandment. Benson powerfully links this commandment to the Savior’s injunction to develop Charity. In our class, we spent a lot of time discussing Moroni 7 which is referenced in Benson’s teachings. Moroni speaks about charity as a gift from God that we get when we follow him with all of our heart. When we do so, we are transformed by the power of the Atonement.

That all consuming desire to serve God is powerfully summed by President Benson:

“To love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is all-consuming and all-encompassing. It is no lukewarm endeavor. It is total commitment of our very being—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—to a love of the Lord.

The breadth, depth, and height of this love of God extend into every facet of one’s life. Our desires, be they spiritual or temporal, should be rooted in a love of the Lord. Our thoughts and affections should be centered on the Lord. “Let all thy thoughts be directed unto the Lord,” said Alma, “yea, let the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever” (Alma 37:36).”

I love this focus. When we truly love God, that love will be a part of every facet of one’s life. We will not compartmentalize or think about our professional or social life as separate from our spiritual or religious life. This semester in law school I am taking a class on Professional Responsibility and we have spent the classes so far talking about how vital it is that disciples of Christ do not try to separate their moral convictions and values from their professional life.

Indeed, love of God must come first over everything including those we care about most.

“We must put God in the forefront of everything else in our lives. He must come first, just as He declares in the first of His Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

When we put God first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord will govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities.

We should put God ahead of everyone else in our lives.”

This is a very difficult teaching at times. Benson speaks about countless examples of individuals who put God first including Joseph when he was in Egypt, and the Savior. He then talks about those converts who join the Church despite opposition from family and loved ones. As the only convert in my family, this resonated deeply with me. Joining the church was not easy, but it was absolutely the right choice. I have really seen everything else fall into its proper place or drop out of my life. While my family members do not always understand my decisions, I know that my membership in the church will ultimately also bless my family.

President Benson powerfully talks about the blessings that come to us when we learn to love God with all of our hearts.

“Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their minds, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace. Whoever will lose his life in the service of God will find eternal life.”

I bear witness that these blessings are true and that as we serve God we are blessed in abundance.