It was Sunday, May 26, 1844, and Joseph Smith Jr. had 33 days to live. William Law, a former member of the First Presidency and now excommunicated member of the LDS Church, spearheaded a group of dissenters. They’d gotten hold of a printing press, taken Smith to court, and even won a grand jury indictment.
Smith hopped aboard the LDS Church’s unofficial steamer, Maid of Iowa, for a short trip down the Mississippi River to Dresden, TN where many had gathered for a three-day conference. There, with pressure building, the first Latter-day Prophet defended his honor:1
God is in the still small voice. In all these affidavits, indictments, it is all of the devil—all corruption. Come on! ye prosecutors! ye false swearers! All hell, boil over! Ye burning mountains, roll down your lava! for I will come out on the top at last. I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.
Joseph Smith was right — everyone had abandoned Jesus. His disciples fled the night of His betrayal to fulfill Zechariah 13:7, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” Yet, there awaited an even greater forsaking that, too, fulfilled Old Testament Scripture, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Let’s briefly explore why it was necessary for Christ to be forsaken.
A Fearful Consequence
The first consequence of human sin was fearful isolation from God (Genesis 3:10). Thus begins the theme of separation from God because of sin. God not only drove the man and woman from the garden (Genesis 3:24), but thousands of years later, drove His Son into the wilderness to overcome forty days of temptation to sin (Mark 1:12-13).
As God’s people formed into a nation, He promises to forsake Israel should they forsake Him (Joshua 24:20); the LORD threatens to drive them from His sight should they forsake His law (2 Chronicles 7:19-20). David repeatedly begs the LORD not to forsake him (Psalm 27:9; 38:21; 119:8) especially not in his old age (Psalm 71:9; 18) despite repeated assurances that God never forsakes the faithful (Deuteronomy 31:6-8; Joshua 1:5). Old Testament believers understood that without God, plans were doomed to fail (2 Chronicles 15:2).
Jesus, knowing that his forsaking was imminent, set His face to Jerusalem in the encouragement that God would not forsake his “soul to Sheol” (Psalm 16:10). This same Jesus soberly warns us that the consequence of unbelief is a forsaking of God in “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
The moment of God’s forsaking came at the low point of Jesus’s earthly life. Having been beaten, whipped, and condemned, Jesus hung naked in stifling darkness to the taunts of scoffers and fools. Why was it necessary to compound shame with abandonment? The answer lies in the doctrine of substitution.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As Paul said earlier in his ministry, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). Peter, who ran from Jesus that fateful night, later taught, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). The “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3) became our great substitute. But to do so, he had to endure the greatest consequence of sin on our behalf, which is utter abandonment by God Himself.
This great substitution can be applied to you by faith and faith alone: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forth as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25; see also Galatians 2:16). Amazingly, those who entrust themselves fully to the mercy of God in Christ can say with Paul, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Mormon apologists have attempted to explain how Joseph’s “boast” was in perfect keeping with humility and the fear of God. Unfortunately, these explanations miss the point the same way Joseph Smith missed the point on May 26, 1844. Jesus came as the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This mission, crafted before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), ensured that Jesus would bear the full weight of God’s forsaking wrath (Matthew 26:39) on our behalf (Romans 5:8). This is holy ground.
If you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from the bottom of my heart, set your eyes on Jesus. Carefully read the passion accounts. Ask yourself, “Am I entrusting myself to Christ and Christ alone to be my Substitute before God Almighty? Will my Temple ceremonies and Priesthood keys really stand up to the wrath of God Almighty?” Please accept the advice of Helen Lemmel, a blind hymn-writer who suffered much in this life: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; Look full in his wonderful face; And the things of earth will grow strangely dim; In the light of His glory and grace.”
History of the Church, vol 6, pg. 408 ↩