During the course of a training Elder Bednar attended in 2003, Elder Maxwell made a statement that impressed him deeply and was the result of this address “The Character of Christ.” He said, “There would have been no Atonement except for the character of Christ.” Read this straightforward and penetrating sermon in which he teaches us to better understand the word “character” in the light of the Atonement. Download PDF
What is Character?
After returning home from the area training meeting in Twin Falls, the first question I attempted to answer was “What is character?” The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that many of the uses of the word character relate to graphic symbols, printing, engraving, and writing. The usages I found most relevant, however, relate to “. . . the sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a race; mental or moral constitution; moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, University Press 2003, Second Edition, 1989). Interestingly, when we look up the word “character” in the topical guide of our scriptures, we discover that it is cross-referenced to the topics of honesty, honor, and integrity.
Brigham Young emphasized the significance of the Savior’s character as he taught and testified about the truthfulness of the Holy Bible:
. . . the Bible is true. It may not all have been translated aright, and many precious things may have been rejected in the compilation and translation of the Bible; but we understand, from the writings of one of the Apostles, that if all the sayings and doings of the Savior had been written, the world could not contain them. I will say that the world could not understand them. They do not understand what we have on record, nor the character of the Savior, as delineated in the Scriptures; and yet it is one of the simplest things in the world, and the Bible, when it is understood, is one of the simplest books in the world, for, as far as it is translated correctly, it is nothing but truth, and in truth there is no mystery save to the ignorant. The revelations of the Lord to his creatures are adapted to the lowest capacity, and they bring life and salvation to all who are willing to receive them. (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 124, emphasis added)
Brigham Young further taught that faith must be focused upon Jesus’ character, in His Atonement, and in the Father’s plan of salvation:
. . . I will take the liberty of saying to every man and woman who wishes to obtain salvation through him (the Savior) that looking to him, only, is not enough: they must have faith in his name, character and atonement; and they must have faith in his father and in the plan of salvation devised and wrought out by the Father and the Son. What will this faith lead to? It will lead to obedience to the requirements of the Gospel; and the few words that I may deliver to my brethren and sisters and friends this afternoon will be with the direct view of leading them to God. (Journal of Discourses, Vol.13, p. 56, Brigham Young, July 18, 1869, emphasis added)
The Character of the Lord Jesus Christ
In a message entitled “O How Great the Plan of Our God” delivered to CES religious educators in February of 1995 (p. 5), Elder Maxwell specifically linked Christ’s character to the infinite and eternal atoning sacrifice:
Jesus’ character necessarily underwrote His remarkable atonement. Without Jesus’ sublime character there could have been no sublime atonement! His character is such that He “[suffered] temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11), yet He gave temptations “no heed” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:22).
Someone has said only those who resist temptation really understand the power of temptation. Because Jesus resisted it perfectly, He understood temptation perfectly, hence He can help us. The fact that He was dismissive of temptation and gave it “no heed,” reveals His marvelous character, which we are to emulate (see Doctrine and Covenants 20:22; 3 Nephi 12:48; 27:27).
Perhaps the greatest indicator of character is the capacity to recognize and appropriately respond to other people who are experiencing the very challenge or adversity that is most immediately and forcefully pressing upon us.
Character is revealed, for example, in the power to discern the suffering of other people when we ourselves are suffering; in the ability to detect the hunger of others when we are hungry; and in the power to reach out and extend compassion for the spiritual agony of others when we are in the midst of our own spiritual distress. Thus, character is demonstrated by looking and reaching outward when the natural and instinctive response is to be self-absorbed and turn inward. If such a capacity is indeed the ultimate criterion of moral character, then the Savior of the world is the perfect example of such a consistent and charitable character.
Examples of Christ’s Character in the New Testament
The New Testament is replete with “strikingly displayed” examples of the Savior’s character. We are all well aware that following His baptism by John the Baptist and as a preparation for His public ministry, the Savior fasted for forty days. He also was tempted by the adversary to inappropriately use His supernal power to satisfy physical desires by commanding that stones be made bread, to gain recognition by casting Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, and to obtain wealth and power and prestige in exchange for falling down and worshiping the tempter (see Matthew 4:1-9). It is interesting to note that the overarching and fundamental challenge to the Savior in each of these three temptations is contained in the taunting statement, “If thou be the Son of God.” Satan’s strategy, in essence, was to dare the Son of God to improperly demonstrate His God-given powers, to sacrifice meekness and modesty, and, thereby, betray who He was. Thus, Satan attempted repeatedly to attack Jesus’ understanding of who He was and of His relationship with His Father. Jesus was victorious in meeting and overcoming the strategy of Satan.
I suspect the Savior may have been at least partially spent physically after forty days of fasting–and somewhat spiritually drained after His encounter with the adversary. With this background information in mind, please turn with me now to Matthew 4, and together we will read verse 11: “Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.”
This verse in the King James version of the New Testament clearly indicates that angels came and ministered to the Savior after the devil had departed. And, undoubtedly, Jesus would have benefitted from and been blessed by such a heavenly ministration in a time of physical and spiritual need.
However, the Joseph Smith Translation of Matthew 4:11 provides a remarkable insight into the character of Christ. Please note the important differences in verse 11 between the King James version and the Joseph Smith Translation: “Then the devil leaveth him, and, now Jesus knew that John was cast into prison, and he sent angels, and, behold, they came and ministered unto him (John).”
Interestingly, the additions found in the JST completely change our understanding of this event. Angels did not come and minister to the Savior; rather, the Savior, in His own state of spiritual, mental, and physical distress, sent angels to minister to John. Brothers and sisters, it is important for us to recognize that Jesus in the midst of His own challenge recognized and appropriately responded to John–who was experiencing a similar but lesser challenge than that of the Savior’s. Thus, the character of Christ is manifested as He reached outward and ministered to one who was suffering–even as He himself was experiencing anguish and torment.
In the upper room on the night of the last supper, the very night during which He would experience the greatest suffering that ever took place in all of the worlds created by Him, Christ spoke about the Comforter and peace:
These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you.
But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:25-27)
Once again the fundamental character of Christ is revealed magnificently in this tender incident. Recognizing that He himself was about to intensely and personally experience the absence of both comfort and peace, and in a moment when His heart was perhaps troubled and afraid, the Master reached outward and offered to others the very blessings that could and would have strengthened Him.
In the great intercessory prayer, offered immediately before Jesus went forth with His disciples over the brook Cedron to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Master prayed for His disciples and for all:
. . . which shall believe on me through their word;
That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me . . .
. . . that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.
And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:20, 21, 23, 26)
I find myself repeatedly asking the following questions as I ponder this and other events that took place so close to the Savior’s suffering in the garden and His betrayal: How could He pray for the well-being and unity of others immediately before His own anguish? What enabled Him to seek comfort and peace for those whose need was so much less than His? As the fallen nature of the world He created pressed in upon Him, how could He focus so totally and so exclusively upon the conditions and concerns of others? How was the Master able to reach outward when a lesser being would have turned inward? The statement I quoted earlier from Elder Maxwell provides the answer to each of these powerful questions:
Jesus’ character necessarily underwrote His remarkable atonement. Without Jesus’ sublime character there could have been no sublime atonement! His character is such that He “[suffered] temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11), yet He gave temptations “no heed” (Doctrine and Covenants 20:22). (“O How Great the Plan of Our God,” message delivered to CES religious educators in February of 1995, p. 5)
Jesus, who suffered the most, has the most compassion for all of us who suffer so much less. Indeed, the depth of suffering and compassion is intimately linked to the depth of love felt by the ministering one. Consider the scene as Jesus emerged from His awful suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. Having just sweat great drops of blood from every pore as part of the infinite and eternal Atonement, the Redeemer encountered a multitude:
And while he yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew unto Jesus to kiss him.
But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss?
When they which were about him saw what would follow, they said unto him, Lord, shall we smite with the sword?
And one of them smote the servant of the high priest, and cut off his right ear. (Luke 22:47-50)
Given the magnitude and intensity of Jesus’ agony, it perhaps would have been understandable if He had not noticed and attended to the guard’s severed ear. But the Savior’s character activated a compassion that was perfect. Note His response to the guard as described in verse 51: “And Jesus answered and said, Suffer ye thus far. And he touched his ear, and healed him (Luke 22:51).
As individually impressive as is each of the preceding events, I believe it is the consistency of the Lord’s character across multiple episodes that is ultimately the most instructive and inspiring. In addition to the incidents we have thus far reviewed, recall how the Savior, while suffering such agony on the cross, instructed the Apostle John about caring for Jesus’ mother, Mary (John 19:26-27). Consider how, as the Lord was taken to Calvary and the awful agony of the crucifixion was commenced, He pleaded with the Father in behalf of the soldiers to “. . . forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Remember also that in the midst of excruciating spiritual and physical pain, the Savior offered hope and reassurance to one of the thieves on the cross, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Throughout His mortal ministry, and especially during the events leading up to and including the atoning sacrifice, the Savior of the world turned outward–when the natural man or woman in any of us would have been self-centered and focused inward.
Brigham Young University-Idaho Religion Symposium
January 25, 2003
Elder David A. Bednar