Nephi’s vision is unlike any other that I am aware of. It consists of a guided tour through a sweeping series of future events. Nephi is accompanied throughout the vision, first by the Spirit of the Lord, and then by an angel. These guides not only explain what he is seeing; they also teach him how to make sense of what he is seeing. During the vision, Nephi is not only learning; he is also learning how to learn.
The entrance exam
At the beginning of the vision, the Spirit asks Nephi two questions:
- What do you desire?
- Do you believe your father?
His answers to these questions apparently unlock the door for him to see the remainder of the vision (1 Nephi 11:2-6). Desire and belief can be prerequisites to revelation.
Understanding the tree
The first thing Nephi sees is the tree which was the centerpiece of his father’s dream. He recognizes that it is symbolic of something else, and he wants to know what it represents.
When we discuss Lehi’s vision, we often say, “The tree represents the love of God.” Surely the angel could have done that too. It would have been a very efficient way to explain the symbolism. But he didn’t. Instead, he led Nephi through a process of discovery which allowed Nephi to achieve a much deeper understanding.
First, the angel showed Nephi the Virgin Mary in the city of Nazareth. While Nephi observed her, the angel introduced the concept of “the condescension of God.” Then, he showed Nephi the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms and asked, “Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?” (1 Nephi 11:21).
Nephi has already said that he doesn’t know what the tree represents, and the two scenes he has just seen have no apparent connection to his father’s dream. Nevertheless, he answers immediately and with conviction: “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 about all things” (1 Nephi 11:22).
How did he know? Somehow, through a series of images and questions, the angel has given him just enough information so that he can ascertain the meaning on his own. Imagine how much that knowledge meant to him because he had to dig for it, because it wasn’t just handed to him. And think about the confidence he gained as he discovered the answer to his question for himself.
As he sees more of the life of the Savior, Nephi quickly identify parallels with the other symbols in his father’s dream.
- When he sees people worshipping the Savior, he remembers the iron rod, which represents the word of God (1 Nephi 11:24-25).
- When he sees many people fighting against the apostles, he recognizes that the great and spacious building represents the pride of the world (1 Nephi 11:34-36).
- Later when he sees his descendants fighting against the descendants of his brothers, the angel points out to him that the filthy river from his father’s dream represents the depths of hell (1 Nephi 12:15-16).
He understands these parallels readily because of his initial experience in figuring out the meaning of the most important symbol in the dream.
At the beginning of the vision, every time the scene changes, the Spirit or the angel says “Look!” (1 Nephi 11:8, 12, 19, 24, 31, 32). And every time, Nephi says, “I looked.” He is obedient, but he is also becoming aware of the importance of being observant.
As the vision proceeds, Nephi needs these verbal prompts less frequently. Sometimes, he sees multiple events in a row without being prompted. Sometimes the angel speaks only after Nephi has looked: “Thou has beheld…” (1 Nephi 14:5). His increased awareness opens the door for the angel to teach him in more detail, to explain in more depth the significance of what he is seeing.
As Nephi later explains the meaning of the river to his brothers, he points out that his father didn’t notice the filthiness of the water, because his mind had been “swallowed up in other things” (1 Nephi 15:26-27). Nephi has learned by experience that receiving revelation is an active experience, and that what you learn is constrained by what you choose to observe.
Today, as I learn, I will strive not only to acquire knowledge but also to increase my capacity to learn. As I teach, I will strive not only to impart knowledge, but also to increase my students’ capacity to learn.