‘We Prophesy of Christ’: The Law of Witnesses in 2 Nephi
February 1990

“‘We Prophesy of Christ’: The Law of Witnesses in 2 Nephi,” Ensign, Feb. 1990, 22

“We Prophesy of Christ”:

The Law of Witnesses in 2 Nephi

The Lord has almost always used witnesses to help establish his word and his power on the earth. One of his purposes is to test us—that is, to see if we will believe in him and obey his laws while we live separated from his presence. (See Abr. 3:25.) Because of that purpose, he has, according to Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “ordained the law of witnesses, the law whereby he reveals himself to prophets and righteous men and sends them forth to teach his laws and bear testimony of their truth and divinity.” (The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978, p. 84.)

Following this prophetic pattern, Nephi deliberately used the law of witnesses to prove that Christ would come to redeem mankind: “My soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ. …

“My soul delighteth in proving unto my people that save Christ should come all men must perish.” (2 Ne. 11:4, 6.)

Nephi referred specifically to Isaiah and Jacob, saying, “I will send their words forth unto my children to prove unto them that my words are true. Wherefore, by the words of three, God hath said, I will establish my word. Nevertheless, God sendeth more witnesses, and he proveth all his words.” (2 Ne. 11:2–3.) Indeed, there are more witnesses in 2 Nephi than three, as Nephi’s book begins with the testimony of his father, Lehi.

Thus, 2 Nephi does not contain much history. Rather, with the exception of the brief account of Lehi’s death and the dividing of the Lamanites from the Nephites (see 2 Ne. 4:12–14; 2 Ne. 5:1–34), the book is a collection of the writings of four witnesses—Lehi, Jacob, Isaiah, and Nephi himself—each testifying of their Redeemer and of his works. (See 2 Ne. 1:15; 2 Ne. 11:2–3.) Bearing witness of him was their primary purpose. Nephi wrote: “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Ne. 25:26.)

The overarching message of these four witnesses is that the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, will redeem mankind, individually and collectively. That redemption involves both his first and second comings. In the meridian of time, the Lord will redeem mankind through his atonement and resurrection. Then, in the last days, he will redeem scattered Israel from the apostasy they have succumbed to by restoring to them a knowledge of himself.

Lehi’s Witness of the Savior (2 Ne. 1:1–4:12)

The Messiah theme is prevalent throughout the teachings of Lehi, as recorded by his son Nephi. Father Lehi warned his posterity that, if they rejected “the Holy One of Israel, the true Messiah, their Redeemer and their God, behold, the judgments of him that is just shall rest upon them.” (2 Ne. 1:10.)

Testimony of the Atonement: In his instructions to his son Jacob, Lehi reviewed the redemption that “cometh in and through the Holy Messiah.” (2 Ne. 2:6.) Lehi focused on the need to learn about the Atonement: “How great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth.” What are “these things”? That no one can dwell with God except through the merits, mercy, and grace of the Messiah, who would lay down his life and take it up again. (See 2 Ne. 2:8.) To explain the Atonement, Lehi pointed out the effects of the Fall and the necessity for opposition in all things. Because of the Fall and opposition, men would have agency. (See 2 Ne. 2:15–16.) Because of the Messiah’s redemption, men could know good from evil and choose liberty and eternal life. (See 2 Ne. 2:26–27.)

Testimony of the Restoration: In his teachings to his last-born son, Joseph, Lehi turned to the Lord’s redemptive work in the last days. Lehi cited the prophecies of his ancestor Joseph, who was sold into Egypt. The Lord promised to raise up a seer, also named Joseph, who would bring the descendants of Joseph to a knowledge of the Lord’s covenants with their fathers. (See 2 Ne. 3:7, 15.) Furthermore, the Lord would give the seer power to restore the words of ancient Joseph’s descendants, as if they were crying from the dust. (See 2 Ne. 3:11–12, 19–21.) The words have come forth today through the Book of Mormon, and three of those descendants who speak to us from the dead are in 2 Nephi: Lehi, Jacob, and Nephi.

Lehi’s parting testimony was of the Lord’s promise that Lehi’s descendants would not perish but, in the end, would be blessed. (See 2 Ne. 4:5–9.) Those of us who live in this era of restoration are seeing the fulfillment of that blessing.

Jacob’s Witness of the Savior (2 Ne. 6, 9–10)

Jacob’s emphasis is on the Lord’s relationship to his people. His method is teaching from the scriptures—in this case, the words of Isaiah. (See 2 Ne. 6:5–7, 16–18; 2 Ne. 7:1–8:25.) What Nephi recorded of Jacob’s words appears to have been taught on two successive days, probably at some kind of convocation, perhaps a religious festival.

Testimony of the Restoration: Jacob immediately underscored the concept that the Nephites were members of the House of Israel and that the real people of the Lord are they who wait for the Messiah, for both his first and second coming. (See 2 Ne. 6:5, 13–14.) He promised that eventually the Lord would gather all members of the House of Israel to the lands of their inheritance, where they would “come to the knowledge of their Redeemer.” (2 Ne. 6:11.) Jacob illustrated this promise with a chapter-length prophecy from Isaiah. (See 2 Ne. 8.) He also cited the Lord’s question to Isaiah, “Is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem, or have I no power to deliver?” (2 Ne. 7:2.) The answer, of course, is no, and Israel can confidently say, “The Lord God will help me, therefore shall I not be confounded.” (2 Ne. 7:7.) Jacob explained that the covenant people would “be restored to the true church and fold of God.” (2 Ne. 9:2.)

On his second day of speaking, Jacob testified that in later times God would be merciful unto the Israelites who would “come to that which will give them the true knowledge of their Redeemer.” (2 Ne. 10:2.) That which will give them this knowledge is the work of gathering scattered Israel from their long dispersion to the promised lands of their inheritance. (See 2 Ne. 10:7, 10–11, 18–19.)

Testimony of the Atonement: Jacob also testified of his people’s need for spiritual redemption; otherwise, their “flesh must have laid down … to rise no more” and their “spirits must have become like unto [the devil] … to be shut out from the presence of our God.” (2 Ne. 9:7, 9.) But the Lord has redeemed his people by preparing an escape from the awful monster, death and hell. (See 2 Ne. 9:10, 19.) The Lord’s atonement and resurrection will bring about the resurrection of all people and bring them before the judgment seat of the Holy One of Israel. (See 2 Ne. 9:12–15.) To save us in the kingdom of God, the Lord commands us to repent, be baptized, and have faith in Jesus Christ. (See 2 Ne. 9:23.) Jacob’s final petition was “May God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God.” (2 Ne. 10:25.)

Isaiah’s Witness of the Savior (2 Ne. 7–8, 12–24, 27)

Nephi reinforced Lehi’s, Jacob’s and his testimonies of the Redeemer by citing Isaiah’s prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of Israel in the last days. Nephi explained his purpose simply: “That I might more fully persuade them to believe in the Lord their Redeemer I did read unto them that which was written by the prophet Isaiah.” (1 Ne. 19:23.) One scholar has observed that, of the 425 verses from Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon, 391 deal in some way with the mission or attributes of the Savior. (See Monte S. Nyman, “Great Are the Words of Isaiah,” Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980, p. 7.)

Testimony of the Restoration: Isaiah’s witness of the Lord was sure and certain. He prophesied of the joyful future of Israel. Again and again, he contrasted Israel’s past waywardness and transgression with its future redemption. (See 2 Ne. 13–14.) He declared that the day would come when all nations would look to Israel for peace and righteous judgment. (See 2 Ne. 12:2–4.) To do that, the Lord would first set his hand to recover the remnant of Israel, raising an ensign for the nations. (See 2 Ne. 21:11–12.) The Lord would call a mighty servant, to whom the Spirit would restore wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, and knowledge. The servant’s work of setting up an ensign of gathering would help to eventually usher in the Millennium. (See 2 Ne. 21:1–10.)

Testimony of the Atonement: The sign of the Lord’s first coming would be that a virgin would conceive and call her child Immanuel, meaning God with us. The Redeemer’s birth, contrary to the expectations of many, would be “for a stone of stumbling, and for a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel.” (2 Ne. 18:14.) Nevertheless, it would be a great light for the people in darkness. Peace and justice would characterize his government, and his reign would be without end. (See 2 Ne. 19:2, 6–7.)

Isaiah’s testimony of the Atonement in the chapters Nephi quotes is placed in the context of his latter-day redemption of Israel. His references to “[washing] away the filth of the daughters of Zion” (2 Ne. 14:4) and having one’s iniquity “taken away” (2 Ne. 16:7) are scattered among his larger vision of the events surrounding the Lord’s second coming. Nephi knew that Isaiah’s prophecies were difficult to understand for his own people, but they were valuable (see 2 Ne. 25:1–3), and he expounded them using his own prophecies in the final chapters of 2 Nephi. Nephi also understood how valuable Isaiah’s prophecies would be for future readers: “I know that they shall be of great worth unto them in the last days; for in that day shall they understand them; wherefore, for their good have I written them.” (2 Ne. 25:8.)

Nephi’s Witness of the Savior (2 Ne. 11, 25–26, 28–33)

After presenting the witnesses of Lehi, Jacob, and Isaiah, Nephi wrote, “I proceed with mine own prophecy.” (2 Ne. 25:7.) Following the pattern of the other testators, he prophesied of both the earthly ministry of the Savior and the latter-day redemption of Israel. Each of the previous witnesses had delivered his prophecies in his own style, and Nephi was no exception. The trademark of his prophesying was plainness, so that no one could err. (See 2 Ne. 25:4, 7.)

Testimony of the Atonement: Nephi began his testimony of the Savior with this prophecy: “They will crucify him; and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead, with healing in his wings; and all those who shall believe on his name shall be saved in the kingdom of God.” (2 Ne. 25:13.) Nephi also extended the Savior’s earthly ministry to include the Nephites, promising that the Lord would visit and heal them, and they would have peace for three generations. (See 2 Ne. 26:9.) He also detailed the path that would lead to salvation—what he called “the doctrine of Christ.” (2 Ne. 31:2.) The disciple should follow the example of the Son of God by being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost. After that, he or she ought to press forward with hope and love, enduring to the end, when the Father would say, “Ye shall have eternal life.” (2 Ne. 31:5–20.)

Testimony of the Restoration: Nephi foresaw the day when the Lord would “set his hand again the second time to restore his people from their lost and fallen state.” (2 Ne. 25:17.) Jesus Christ would reveal himself to the world in the last day (see 2 Ne. 26:12–14), and all—“black and white, bond and free, male and female; … the heathen; and … both Jew and Gentile”—could come to him (2 Ne. 26:33.) One of his great works would be a book, written by an ancient people but partially sealed, that would be a revelation from God. (See 2 Ne. 27:6–10.) The law of witnesses would also apply to this book, for “none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered” and “a few according to the will of God,” who would “bear testimony of his word unto the children of men.” (2 Ne. 27:12–13.) The law of witnesses would also apply to the testimony of God in the last days: “Know ye not that the testimony of two nations is a witness unto you that I am God?” (2 Ne. 29:8.) The Bible itself would be insufficient, and the Lord would establish his word by bringing forth the Book of Mormon. (See 2 Ne. 29:3–7, 12–13.)

As Nephi shows, the Lord has not left us without proof of spiritual things. He has given us enough witnesses, including the witness of the Holy Ghost, which enables each of us to add our testimony to those in 2 Nephi.

  • Bruce A. Van Orden is an assistant professor of Church history at Brigham Young University. He serves as a high councilor in the BYU Second Stake.

Illustrated by Mitchell Heinz