Why Did the Nephites Keep the Law of Moses?

The apostle Paul told the saints in Galatia that the law of Moses had served as a “schoolmaster” to help them develop faith in Jesus Christ. After they developed faith, they didn’t need the schoolmaster any more (Galatians 3:24-25).

The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob also recognized that the law of Moses was intended to help him and his people develop faith. However, he encouraged his people to continue to observe the law:

For this intent we keep the law of Moses, it pointing our souls to him; and for this cause it is sanctified unto us for righteousness (Jacob 4:5).

Paul’s ministry was after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and his purpose was to explain why the law of Moses had been superseded by the gospel taught by Jesus. Jacob lived hundreds of years earlier. He and other Book of Mormon prophets understood that they were still bound by the law of Moses until the coming of the Savior.

Jacob’s brother Nephi said, “Notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled” (2 Nephi 25:24). He said that the law had become dead to them because they were alive in Christ. But he told his people, “ye must keep the performances and ordinances of God until the law shall be fulfilled which was given unto Moses” (2 Nephi 25:30).

Nephi was encouraging his people to practice an enlightened obedience. Even though they recognized the limitations of the law, and even though they were aware of the core principles which the law represented, they continued to keep the law, patiently looking forward to the time when the Lord would give them something higher and holier.

An angel explained to King Benjamin that God had given the children of Israel the law of Moses because they were “a stiffnecked people.” The law was intended to teach them about the Savior, “yet they hardened their hearts, and understood not that the law of Moses availeth nothing except it were through the atonement of his blood” (Mosiah 3:14-15).

The prophet Abinadi taught the wicked priests of King Noah four important principles regarding the law of Moses:

  1. If you teach the law of Moses, you ought to keep it (Mosiah 12:28-29).
  2. The law of Moses is temporary. We keep it now, but there will come a time when we will not be required to follow it (Mosiah 13:27).
  3. The law alone will not save you. Without the Atonement of Jesus Christ, you cannot be saved (Mosiah 13:28).
  4. The law of Moses is “a shadow of those things which are to come.” Its whole purpose is to lead you to Jesus Christ (Mosiah 16:14-15).

The Lamanites who were converted to the gospel by the sons of Mosiah understood these principles and obeyed the law of Moses with maturity and awareness:

They did keep the law of Moses; for it was expedient that they should keep the law of Moses as yet, for it was not all fulfilled. But notwithstanding the law of Moses, they did look forward to the coming of Christ, considering that the law of Moses was a type of his coming, and believing that they must keep those outward performances until the time that he should be revealed unto them.
Now they did not suppose that salvation came by the law of Moses; but the law of Moses did serve to strengthen their faith in Christ; and thus they did retain a hope through faith, unto eternal salvation, relying upon the spirit of prophecy, which spake of those things to come (Alma 25:15-16).

When Samuel the Lamanite called the Nephites to repentance, he pointed out to them that the Lamanites were “[walking] circumspectly before God,” following the law of Moses strictly. He encouraged the Nephites to repent and do the same (Helaman 15:5). (See also Helaman 13:1.)

After the people saw the sign of the Savior’s birth, some people got a little ahead of themselves:

[They] began to preach, endeavoring to prove by the scriptures that it was no more expedient to observe the law of Moses. Now in this thing they did err, having not understood the scriptures.
But it came to pass that they soon became converted, and were convinced of the error which they were in, for it was made known unto them that the law was not yet fulfilled, and that it must be fulfilled in every whit; yea, the word came unto them that it must be fulfilled; yea, that one jot or tittle should not pass away till it should all be fulfilled (3 Nephi 1:24-25).

After the destruction which coincided with the Savior’s death, the people heard His voice. He announced to them that the promised day had now come, that the law of Moses had now been fulfilled:

By me redemption cometh, and in me is the law of Moses fulfilled….
And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.
And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost….
Behold, I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin (3 Nephi 9:17-21).

Shortly after, He visited a group of people who were gathered at the temple in Bountiful. He delivered the Sermon on the Mount, teaching them a higher law which superseded the law they had previously been taught. During that sermon, He said, “Old things are done away, and all things have become new” (3 Nephi 12:47).

It can be hard to adapt to change, and after delivering that sermon, He recognized that some people were confused. They had been taught their entire lives to keep the law of Moses. They may have had spiritual experiences as they demonstrated their love of God by following that law. What did Jesus mean? Which portions of the law were no longer relevant, and which still applied? Jesus explained to them the scope of the change:

  • The law was fulfilled. In other words, the ordinances of the law which had served to point their minds forward to His sacrifice were no longer relevant. They were forward-looking practices, and He had now fulfilled the action which those practices had anticipated.
  • The words of the prophets were still relevant. Any prophecies which had not yet been fulfilled were still relevant.
  • His covenant with His people was still in force. He had promised that the children of Israel who had been scattered throughout the earth would one day be gathered to His gospel. That promise had not been fulfilled yet, and He would continue to honor it (3 Nephi 15:3-8).

If they were nervous about losing a law which had served as the framework of their religious life, He encouraged them to look to Him: “I am the law, and the light,” He said. “Look unto me, and endure to the end, and ye shall live” (3 Nephi 15:9).

Practices change, but principles do not. None of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel were affected by this change in religious observance. In fact, this change represented an opportunity for followers of Christ to distinguish between the practices (which were temporary) and the underlying principles (which were permanent).

Elder David A. Bednar has pointed out that, when church practices change, we can use those changes as an opportunity to deepen our understanding and elevate our worship. Referencing two recent changes made in the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he said:

The Sunday meeting schedule was not simply shortened. Rather, we now have increased opportunities and responsibilities as individuals and families to use our time for enhancing the Sabbath as a delight at home and at church.
Last April, the organizational structure of priesthood quorums was not merely changed. Rather, emphasis and strength were given to a higher and holier way of ministering to our brothers and sisters (“Gather Together in One All Things in Christ,” General Conference, October 2018).

Today, I will be grateful for the example of the Nephites. As I participate in church meetings and activities, I will remember that these practices can serve as a “schoolmaster” to point me toward Jesus Christ, just as the law of Moses did for the Nephites and the Lamanites. Like the Lamanites, I will strive to see past the practices to the underlying realities, so that my participation in worship at church and at home can serve to increase my faith in Jesus Christ and bring me closer to Him.

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