© Anthony E. Larson, 2005
THE GOSPEL LITMUS TEST
A chemist can determine the pH of any substance by dipping a bit of colored paper into it. Called “litmus” paper, its color changes depending upon the acidity or alkalinity of the compound in question—one color if it is acidic, another if it is basic. It’s a fundamental and uncomplicated test.
There is a similar such test to determine the extent of our gospel comprehension, to determine how well we read and study the scriptures.
It’s called prophecy.
Most Latter-day Saints are likely to dismiss such a notion out of hand, since they consider prophecy to be a rather esoteric and narrow part of the gospel and thus the least likely candidate for such a gauge or standard. After all, prophetic symbolism seems to have little to do with the day-to-day, practical application of our religion.
So, how can one possibly construe prophecy to be a test for anything, much less the depth of our gospel understanding?
It is precisely because the colorful and peculiar imagery of prophecy permeates all of scripture, not just prophetic visions. It is the symbol and imagery-laden language of the prophets.
The beasts seen in Ezekiel’s and Daniel’s Old Testament visions as well as those seen by John in Revelation are the same beasts that are seen on Joseph Smith’s facsimiles and those described in the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price.
The ‘miracles’ of the Exodus are the same as the ‘signs’ in Revelation, and they corroborate and illuminate Joseph Smith’s statements about the nature of latter-day signs in his journal, History of the Church.
The planets, stars and other enigmatic symbols that adorn our latter-day temples are also found in our sacred texts, and the explicitly symbolic nature of the rituals and fixtures found within those hallowed walls point us to the lofty value that latter-day prophets placed on that imagery, however obscure it may seem to us.
Perhaps more telling is the fact that after the heavens were effectively sealed for centuries, of all the choice scripture that the angel Moroni could have chosen to quote to the young Joseph Smith when he first appeared to him in 1823, he quoted prophecy—Malachi, Isaiah, and Joel. Its message is that important.
Prophecy is at the heart of our religion, though we seem reluctant to acknowledge that truth. The gospel was restored and the church was subsequently founded on the notion of Adventism, the doctrine that the second coming of Christ, in the wake of a worldwide destruction called the apocalypse, is near at hand.
Instead, we almost universally focus on the spiritual message of the scriptures, disregarding the imagery as mere poetic affectation. In doing so, we overlook fully half of the information in the scriptures. Like the proverbial forest in the trees, it is virtually invisible to us.
As a result, our gospel comprehension suffers. We cannot make sense of the bizarre imagery of prophecy. We also fail to see much of what the sacred texts were meant to convey. We go through temple sessions without grasping the profound enormity of the message that the imagery we see there represents. When we look at Joseph Smith’s facsimiles, we see them only as oddities and curiosities that once entertained the passing interest of a prophet rather than the very keys to gospel comprehension.
In making all these omissions, we dismiss as inconsequential the message God and his prophets have carefully placed before us. We dismiss a vital part of the gospel of Jesus Christ as mere decorative glitter.
If the spiritual message of salvation is the gospel’s heart and soul, then the imagery and symbolism are its bone and sinew. That’s why it’s found everywhere in the restored church, from the scriptures, to the temples, to the discourses of modern prophets.
This is our litmus test: To the extent to which we do or do not understand the imagery of prophecy, we also fail to understand the rest of scriptural imagery.
Our casual acquaintance with our own gospel betrays a lack of study and dedication to its comprehension. We do not “search the scriptures,” as we’ve been counseled to do. We skim through them. We read, but without comprehension.
Hence, we get repeated pleas from the Brethren to read our scriptures—the most recent: Read the Book of Mormon.
Thus, our comprehension of prophecy is a clear indication of our overall gospel understanding. This being the case, most of us fail the gospel litmus test, since for most Latter-day Saints prophecy is a mystery, wrapped in a conundrum, couched in an enigma.
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