Lehi’s teachings about a savior who would come take away the sins of the world seem common place to us living in a Christian dominated world. Indeed, Nephi writing decades after first gaining his testimony likewise writes as if these things are familiar. But in the Book of Mormon, one can nevertheless catch glimpses of how jarring and unusual this doctrine was to Lehi’s family.
4 Yea, even six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world.
5 And he also spake concerning the prophets, how great a number had testified of these things, concerning this Messiah, of whom he had spoken, or this Redeemer of the world.
6 Wherefore, all mankind were in a lost and in a fallen state, and ever would be save they should rely on this Redeemer.
Lehi begins preaching a couple of doctrines that may not have seemed familiar in light of the dominant spiritual culture of the day. First, he talks about the Messiah not only as savior of the Jews, but also savior of the world. Second, he speaks of not only a temporal, but a spiritual redeemer who saves mankind from a lost and fallen state. Moreover, he argues that the prophets of old had long testified of such a savior. He then speaks of John the Baptist, which might have evoked Elijah’s prophecies as it did for those at the time of Christ. Most or all of these teachings would have been challenging to his audience. But the next thing that he preached was likely hardest of all:
11 And it came to pass after my father had spoken these words he spake unto my brethren concerning the gospel which should be preached among the Jews, and also concerning the dwindling of the Jews in unbelief. And after they had slain the Messiah, who should come, and after he had been slain he should rise from the dead, and should make himself manifest, by the Holy Ghost, unto the Gentiles.
Imagine that you are a Jew living in the 6th century b.c., not only have you been told that Jerusalem will be destroyed, but now you are also being told that when God will send a deliverer, your people will reject him. And he will then go not to his chosen people, but to your enemies among the gentiles. This was a hard saying and very difficult to accept.
The difficulty is helped but not completely ameliorated by Lehi’s later teaching of the eventual restoration of Israel:
14 And after the house of Israel should be scattered they should be gathered together again; or, in fine, after the Gentiles had received the fulness of the Gospel, the natural branches of the olive tree, or the remnants of the house of Israel, should be grafted in, or come to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and their Redeemer.
The idea that the Jews would have to be grafted back into the tree would have been outrageous. Why would God’s chosen people become lost and in need of grafting? This simply wasn’t how it was meant to happen. Isaiah’s millennial vision of gentile priests was shocking enough, bug this was unheard of.
Is it any wonder then that Nephi desperately and urgently wanted to know form himself that these things were true? If they were familiar things he’d heard from childhood, Nephi might have wanted to know, but not with the same urgency. These things were new and unsettling to Nephi. He wanted to know of them because the were not easy things to believe.