Lehi had shown he was a great prophet from the visions he had (1 Nephi 1). These visions directed him to call repentance to the people of Jerusalem, flee to the new Promised Land, obtain the Plates of Brass, get Ishmael to provide wives for his sons (akin to Abraham getting Isaac a wife from his home land), etc. Up to this point, Nephi was obedient, having received a testimony of his father being a prophet. With Lehi's great Vision of the Tree of Life, Nephi could have just sought a testimony that it was real and true. Instead, this was his moment to become a prophet in his own right. He sought to receive the Vision, not knowing he would have his father's vision and so much more. His vision would go beyond the Tree of Life and family, to future generations of Nephites, the Gentiles, John's Revelation, and the Second Coming of Christ.
Nephi’s Vision of the Tree
1 Nephi 11-15
Nephi desired to “know the things my father had seen.” As with his father, his journey begins with meditation and prayer near the beginning of it. As he pondered, the Holy Ghost lifted him to a high mountain. Whenever a person in scripture or in ancient Jewish/Christian writings has an experience on a high mountain, one knows it will be a temple-like experience, where the person is prepared to enter God’s presence and glory (Matthew 17, Revelation 21:10). We see this in the Apocalypse of Paul, with Moses’ ascent of Sinai, and the brother of Jared as he saw Christ.
We learn something important regarding the Holy Spirit - he is human-like in form, for Nephi spoke with him as a man talks to another man. The Spirit tested Nephi’s faith prior to giving him such a powerful experience. He was asked if he believed his father’s Lehi’s words, and in God. The Spirit then testified of the Father and Son, which is his main responsibility to mankind. Then the Spirit probed him, to see what things he already understood (1 Ne 11:3-6)
An interesting dialogue occurs between Nephi and the Spirit. The Spirit tells him that after seeing the Tree of Life, he would see the Son of Man descend from heaven. Upon seeing the tree, Nephi asked to know the interpretation of it. The Holy Spirit then showed him the virgin Mary. Nephi still was not sure of the interpretation.
“And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look! And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things” (1 Ne 11:18-22).
Why is it that upon seeing Mary with the baby that suddenly he understood the Tree of Life to mean the love of God? Here we come to an ancient Jewish belief that was lost from the temple in the days of King Josiah and the Deuteronomist reforms. In reforming the religion, many things were removed from the temple, including the Tree of Life, angels, and being in the presence of God (Shekinah).
Anciently, it was believed that God had a wife or consort, named Asherah. She was known to be the goddess of wisdom and fertility (love). Archaeologists have found evidence of her as being a part of the worship of both Elohim and Yahweh. In Proverbs, she is known as Wisdom (Proverbs 8). Lost from the temple teachings in Lehi’s day, the concept of Asherah, the Tree of Life, the wife of God would have stood out in the Brass Plates and recognized immediately by Nephi. In speaking of this at the 2005 Library of Congress, Joseph Smith Symposium, Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker noted that such a teaching in the Book of Mormon was perfectly understood and accepted in 600 BC.
In seeing the mortal mother of God represented by the Tree of Life, Nephi understood that the Tree of Life signified the wife of God, or Heavenly Mother as LDS call her, shedding forth her fruit that would make one happy. The fruit was white beyond description and was the thing that gave spiritual life and joy. The fruit is Jesus Christ.
Condescensions of God
Nephi is shown two condescensions of God, or two times when God descends below mankind. (1 Ne 11:16, 26). The first was a condescension of both Father and Son in bringing forth the birth of Jesus through a mortal mother. Jesus would descend from his throne on high, and become mortal, leaving the Father behind. The second was at Jesus’ baptism, where the Lord of all set the example of baptism for all the rest of us to follow. Though he was perfect, he was baptized to fulfill all righteousness and the will of the Father.
The condescension continued as Christ walked the earth, taught and healed during his ministry - the King of Israel as the humble servant, and then suffered physical and spiritual death (My God, why hast thou forsaken me?) in the Garden and on the Cross, so that we may be lifted up by him.
In death, he descended into the catacombs of the dead, where he opened the prison doors and brought forth the First Resurrection. Such was the condescension of God.
The Future Nations
While Lehi’s vision focused primarily on his family, and linked him symbolically to Abraham, Nephi’s vision will link him to Joseph or Moses, leaders not only of families, but of nations.
Nephi’s vision follows the timeline of the Nephites, where he sees the future division of the people, their wickedness and their repentance at the coming of Christ to his people. He then witnessed the Nephite destruction and the survival of the Lamanites, who would remain in the dark and dreary wilderness until a future restoration would occur.
Unlike Lehi’s vision that focused on his family, Nephi’s vision takes him further to see the nations of the Nephites and Lamanites, the coming of the others, and the Second Coming of the Lord. His is a an expansive vision with an entirely different focus than that of his father’s.
He sees the coming of the Gentiles to the promised land, with Columbus inspired to cross the ocean, even as his father Lehi was inspired to do. He foresees the land of liberty and the day when the Gentiles would fall into sin, becoming like the wicked Lamanites, living in a telestial state outside the presence of God, and losing the blessings of the promised land (1 Ne 12-14).
A discussion ensues regarding the two churches: that of God and the Devil. The great and abominable Church has sometimes been believed to be the Catholic Church and perhaps the Protestant religions that broke away from it. However, we see that Nephi described the abominable church as one that led men’s souls to hell. According to LDS belief, this cannot include these faiths, as they do not lead men down to hell. Instead, they call people to Christ, and are among the honorable men of the earth which shall inherit the Terrestrial kingdom (D&C 76). Instead, we should see the great and abominable Church as any organization that leads people away from Christ, down paths of destruction. We shall see in the Nephite record that this includes organizations that resemble Gadianton Robbers, who seek to get gain and power by any method necessary, including theft and murder. Among other places, these can be found as gangs, business organizations, or even in government, if such organizations seek power and gain and are willing to murder to obtain or maintain that power.
Interestingly, Nephi is told that his vision is like that of John the Revelator, and is commanded to not write most of the vision, because it was assigned to John to write it. That John’s Revelation is an ascension text was discussed in my 2011 New Testament lessons on Revelation. There is a big connection between the Book of Revelation and Nephi’s Vision of the Tree of Life. Perhaps reading them together may bring forth interesting insights into both. Major keys is that both Nephi's revelation and John's Revelation are endowments: people falling from God's grace, dwell in a wicked world of disease, poverty, war and death. Satan rears his ugly head time and again to destroy mankind. The prophets and saints are often martyred. Then comes the Lord's salvation, as the wicked are destroyed and the righteous enter into God's kingdom. For John, this meant God's throne room (Rev 4) and the New Jerusalem coming down in glory with streets of gold and the Tree of Life in the middle of it. As with the endowment, we experience life in a Telestial world, with the hope that we will gain exaltation and eternal life, partaking of the Tree of Life and living forever in God's presence.
In 1 Nephi 15, Nephi notes he returned to his father’s tent. Again, the tent represents the center of their universe. It is where they council, and where Nephi explains the vision to his brothers. It is akin to Moses’ Tabernacle, as a sacred place in the wilderness, where the family may receive revelation.
Apocalypse of Paul: http://www.gnosis.org/naghamm/ascp.html
The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, by Geza Vermes: http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Scrolls-English-Penguin-Classics/dp/0140449523/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1325182867&sr=1-1
My Old Testament article on Proverbs, where I discuss Wisdom as the wife of God: http://joelsmonastery.blogspot.com/2010/08/ot-gospel-doctrine-lesson-31-happy-is.html
Margaret Barker at Joseph Smith Symposium (session 2, second speaker): http://oneclimbs.com/2016/03/30/margaret-barker-transcript-from-the-worlds-of-joseph-smith-conference/
Daniel C. Peterson, "Nephi and his Asherah" https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/jbms/vol9/iss2/4/