Matthew 1, Luke 1
The previous lesson discussed the mission of the Messiah, as foreseen by Isaiah. It also discussed Christ as the premortal Word, the Son of God. Lesson 2 begins the Annunciation, where angels foretell the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ to Zechariah and Mary, respectively. In Roman Catholic theology, the Virgin Mary is a saint with incredible reserves of holiness to share with believers. However, for many modern Christians, the role of the Virgin Mary is downplayed, as the role of Christ is focused upon.
For the average Latter-day Saint, we should find our view of Mary in between that of Catholic and Protestant. We do not worship nor pray to her, yet we should see her in a very important real and symbolic role. We also see in LDS teaching a similar position for John the Baptist.
The Vision of the Tree of Life
John the Baptist
Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8-10) and previous visions (see 1 Nephi 1) emphasize the coming Messiah. For Lehi, the concept of Messiah was an idea that still needed fleshing out, and the visions provide much of the details. Lehi sees the Tree of Life, after which he sees the Messiah come down to earth to save mankind.
“7And he (Lehi) spake also concerning a prophet who should come before the Messiah, to prepare the way of the Lord—
“8Yea, even he should go forth and cry in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; for there standeth one among you whom ye know not; and he is mightier than I, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. And much spake my father concerning this thing.
“9And my father said he should baptize in Bethabara, beyond Jordan; and he also said he should baptize with water; even that he should baptize the Messiah with water.
“10And after he had baptized the Messiah with water, he should behold and bear record that he had baptized the Lamb of God, who should take away the sins of the world” (1 Ne 10).
In all of LDS scripture, very few people’s missions are foreseen. John the Baptist, Mary, Moses, Joseph Smith, the Three Witnesses, and Jesus Christ are pretty much the whole extent of it. Clearly, their missions were so important as to be foreseen in scripture.
The mortal Savior would say this of John:
“7 And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?
“8But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.
“9But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.
“10For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
“11Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
“12And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
“13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.
“14And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come” (Matthew 11).
John was not an ever-bending reed blowing in the wind. He was a solid oak that stood firm and unbending. The only way to change him would be pull him up from his roots, or behead him. John the Baptist is Elias, or rather AN Elias. Elias is a title for a messenger who is to prepare the way for a great work. Noah was the first Elias as he warned the people of the Flood to come. Later, as the archangel Gabriel, Noah as Elias would announce Jesus’ birth to Mary. John not only would announce the mortal Christ as the Messiah, but would also baptize him. No other prophet or man would have that opportunity. Even Joseph Smith, as the Elias of the Restoration, would not do as John did in preparing the way for the Savior’s work of redemption.
Mary, The Virgin
Nephi sought to understand his father Lehi’s vision. His version is more detailed and gives us interesting concepts regarding ancient Israel and of the virgin birth.
Lehi saw the religious reforms done in King Josiah’s reign. These included the “finding” of the book of Deuteronomy in the temple. Most scholars today believe that some ancient Deuteronomy fragments were found and amplified into the book we now have by the temple priests. This was in order to establish their power. With the reforms came the loss of certain things in the temple, including the Tree of Life, God’s wife (known as Wisdom or also Asherah), and even the idea of angelic visitations.
Nephi saw in his Vision of the Tree of Life. His spiritual guide explained to him that what he would then see would be the things Nephi would have to bear witness of, as these would explain the Tree and the white fruit of the tree.
“8And it came to pass that the Spirit said unto me: Look! And I looked and beheld a tree; and it was like unto the tree which my father had seen; and the beauty thereof was far beyond, yea, exceeding of all beauty; and the whiteness thereof did exceed the whiteness of the driven snow.
“9And it came to pass after I had seen the tree, I said unto the Spirit: I behold thou hast shown unto me the tree which is precious above all....
“12And it came to pass that he said unto me: Look! And I looked as if to look upon him, and I saw him not; for he had gone from before my presence.
“13And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
“14And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?
“15And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.
“16And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?
“17And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.
“18And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
“19And 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!
“20And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. “(1 Nephi 11).
Jesus is the fruit of the tree. He is the love shed forth for all mankind. But the tree itself is Mary. Anciently, the Tree of Life was a symbol for the wife of God, known as Wisdom and as Asherah. She symbolized both wisdom and fertility, and was honored as such (see Proverbs 8 for an example).
Mary is the “mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” She symbolizes the Heavenly Mother, wife of Heavenly Father, who is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the spirit.
So important is the work of Mary and what she symbolized that early Christians wrote stories about her life, including the “Gospel of the Birth of Mary”, wherein is described her miraculous birth and childhood. While the stories are probably fictitious, they do show that many ancient Christians did revere her for her important role as the mother of the Son of God.
The Tree of Life is only as important as the fruit it gives to mankind in order to give them life. While the fruit of an apple tree can sustain us here in mortality, the exceedingly white fruit of the Tree of Life can give us eternal life. The fruit fills us with the love of God, as only Christ can bring us back into the presence of our loving Heavenly Father and Mother. Imagine then the great resolve of the young teenage girl, when Gabriel spoke to her and told her she would bear God’s child! Knowing she would be ostracized and perhaps even killed for being pregnant outside of wedlock, she told the angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1). She would stand by her sacred calling and her sacred son, even when grown men fled while Jesus hung on the cross.
Great New Testament Introduction by Kevin Barney: http://bycommonconsent.com/2011/01/01/nt-intro/
Jim F’s Lesson 2: http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2011/01/02/nt-sunday-school-lesson-2-jf-luke-1-matthew-1/
Karl D’s Lesson 2: http://feastuponthewordblog.org/2011/01/02/new-testament-lesson-kd-matthew-1-luke-1/
Old Testament lessons containing info on Deuteronomists, The Tree of Life, the Virgin Mary and Asherah/Wisdom:
Margaret Barker on the Josian Reforms, the changes to the Temple, Asherah, and the Deuteronomists:
“The Gospel of the Birth of Mary”: http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/lbob/lbob05.htm