I was preparing an Elders Quorum lesson and felt particularly drawn to Alma 5. I fell in love with this chapter during my full-time mission days and when I really, really read it, I was highlighting so much that I actually outlined the entire contents of each page! I remember thinking: “This is just all so fantastic, I love it all!”
Fast forward 14 years later and I remembered that I had read somewhere the exact number of questions that Alma asked in this chapter. So I did a quick search and pulled up this amazing document by John W. Welch, who teaches at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU. I remember enjoying his fantastic presentation at the Mormonism and the Temple Conference so I was immediately interested.
John has observed that not only are there 50 questions in Alma’s sermon, but that they can be divided into 8 groups. Now, being the numbers geek that I am, 8 and 50 just jumped out at me. Before I get into the nitty gritty, I’d like to preface the breakdown with a quote from Avraham Gileadi, who suggests:
“Nothing the ancient prophets wrote or spoke lacked a particular form or structure… Throughout the ancient Near East, once a literary practice became established, it was carefully maintained. With the passing of time, tradition would modify it but never discard it.” ~ Avraham Gileadi (literary analyst), The Book of Isaiah: A New Translation With Interperetive Keys from the Book of Mormon, p.15
Deliverance and Rebirth, the themes that bookend the Alma 5 sermon
So when we find certain patterns and themes, and especially numerical structure, I believe that we should take note. So let’s take a look at the number 8 first and I’m excited because I get to use a quote from my newest book:
“Hence it is the number specially associated with Resurrection and Regeneration, and the beginning of a new era or order… Hence, too, circumcision was to be performed on the eighth day, because it was the foreshadowing of the true circumcision of the heart, that which was to be “made without hands,” even “The putting off of the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11). This is connected with the new creation.” ~ Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance, p.200
There are many other themes that can be conveyed by the number 8 and “rebirth” fits in there quite nicely as well. I’ve documented the use of the number eight as a rebirth motif in LDS chapel architecture before here and here. So Welch’s observation of 8 groups is incredibly significant as we will soon see. Now let’s turn to the number 50 which gets really fun:
“is the number of jubilee or deliverance. It is the issue of 7×7 (72) and points to deliverance and rest…” ~ Ethelbert W. Bullinger, Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance, p.268
Deliverance is such a powerful theme in the Old Testament as well as the Book of Mormon. Bullinger used the word “jubilee” and that is important as well. We can turn to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary to give us some more clues on the word “jubilee”:
1. Among the Jews, every fiftieth year, being the year following the revolution of seven weeks of years, at which time all the slaves were liberated, and all lands which had been alienated during the whole period, reverted to their former owners. This was a time of great rejoicing. Hence, 2. A season of great public joy and festivity.
Think of the significance of slaves being liberated or delivered from bondage and how that compares to being delivered from the chains of sin. So here we have 50 and 8, which are themes of deliverance and rebirth respectively. What I stumbled upon next really excited me, I realized that these themes bookend the entire Alma 5 sermon. In verses 4, 5 and 6, right at the beginning of the sermon we have deliverance addressed:
- they were delivered out of the hands of the people of king Noah (vs. 4)
- again the Lord did deliver them out of bondage by the power of his word (vs. 5)
- he has delivered their souls from hell (vs. 6)
Then at the very last verse of Alma 5, we see rebirth indicated by the subject of baptism:
I speak by way of command unto you that belong to the church; and unto those who do not belong to the church I speak by way of invitation, saying: Come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye also may be partakers of the fruit of the tree of life. (vs. 62)
I do not believe that this is a simple coincidence. The two themes wonderfully compliment the eight groups that John Welch identifies:
- Remembering God’s Acts for His People (Alma 5:6-9)
- Knowing the Essential Logic of the Gospel (Alma 5:10-11)
- Being Personally Converted (Alma 5:14-15)
- Imagining the Judgement Day (Alma 5:15-24)
- Assessing One’s Spiritual Condition (Alma 5:26-30)
- Being Identified with a ‘Fold’ (Alma 5:39)
- Obtaining spiritual knowledge (Alma 5:45-46)
- Refusing to repent: (Alma 5:53-59)
Alma went to preach to members of the church, and anyone else who would listen, throughout the land (vs. 1-2). There seems to be a very deliberate form and structure to this sermon that paints a beautiful message that I don’t think I could ever do justice to. However, I’ll share some of my own insights and observations.
1. Remembering God’s Acts for His People (Alma 5:6-9)
We see the phrase “Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance…” 3 times in verse 6 alone. Alma draws the minds of the people back to the past and the fathers who were delivered, who the Lord was patient with, and who he delivered from hell. Remembering those that have gone before is the central theme to the first information presented.
2. Knowing the Essential Logic of the Gospel (Alma 5:10-11)
Alma is still in the past but this time he’s asking about the conditions that merited the deliverance and salvation of their ancestors.
3. Being Personally Converted (Alma 5:14-15)
Now he brings things to the present. He asks, “Have you spiritually been born of God?” (vs. 14) and challenges his listeners to whether or not the atonement is actually in effect in their lives. Remember, he’s speaking to members of the church and asking them if they have been born of God or not.
4. Imagining the Judgement Day (Alma 5:15-24)
Next, Alma focuses on the inevitable future and judgement that awaits all mankind. Alma speaks toward the assumption of guilt and the picture he paints would strike a holy terror into the guilty but would not shake the one who is at peace with God. It provides a striking litmus test to help you know where you stand. The degree to which you are fearful may reflect the degree to which you need to repent. Then Alma snaps us back to the past again to compare us with the holy ones who have gone before, “Do you think you can sit down in the kingdom of God with all the holy prophets, whose garments are cleansed, spotless, pure and white? (vs. 24)
5. Assessing One’s Spiritual Condition (Alma 5:26-30)
Alma returns us to the present where he explores another condition, “If you experienced a change of heart and have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, can you feel so now?”(vs. 26) Alma seems to be trying to wake up the “typical churchgoer” who really doesn’t know where they stand with God, whether they’ve just never made the connection or whether they have strayed from a state of holiness and now float in limbo. Perhaps many in the modern church are in that condition. If your best 2 years were 20 years ago in the mission field, have you really not improved since then? What happened? You remember being so close to the Lord, but time has passed, life became more complex and stressful, sin and temptation snuck in and your present state is a far cry from a former glory. How is your walk with God? Yeah, it’s time to reconnect.
6. Being Identified with a ‘Fold’ (Alma 5:39)
I’m going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that the fold of God is not necessarily the church you belong to at the present time. The sheep of the good shepherd may not be those in your congregation, but many might be. If you are looking for the fold of God, look no further than those who sealed their righteousness in their own blood and who’s stories fill the pages of scripture. Don’t compare yourself with Brother Busybody, ultimately look to Moses, Peter, Nephi, Alma, the Brother of Jared and especially Christ. Look to those that you know are sheep of the good shepherd.
7. Obtaining spiritual knowledge (Alma 5:45-46)
Alma tells us how he knows these things and gives some clues as to how you can too.
8. Refusing to repent: (Alma 5:53-59)
This is a final call to repentance. Alma asks repeatedly, “Will you persist…” in doing those things that will keep you from God? In the last 3 verses we are commanded by Alma in three respects. Alma commands the church to:
- suffer no ravenous wolf to enter … that ye may not be destroyed,
- observe to do the words which I have spoken unto you,
- partake of the fruit of the tree of life.
Remembering those that have gone before is essential to our own salvation. They have written their own accounts, showing how they were delivered and reborn. If we take the Book of Mormon, we will discover that the many powerful conversions stories create a beautiful spectrum of ascent.
There are so many kinds of people experiencing conversion and ascent. From wicked pagan kings, to lost sons of righteous men and even holy men of God, we see them all progress from one state to another. By identifying our own struggles with theirs, we can better see the clear path of ascent before us and by using their experiences as patterns, we too can enjoy the same blessings.
What do you think?
- Alma 5 holds many, many more secrets; do you have any to share?
- What principles in Alma 5 do you feel are the most powerful for you, personally?
- How else can we utilize Alma 5 in helping others find their way to (or back to) the Lord?