Roots and Branches


Around 400 B.C., the Lord told the prophet Malachi that Elijah would be sent in the latter-days to “turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6).  We Latter-day Saints are extremely familiar with this particular prophecy.  We know all about the coming of Elijah to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Kirtland temple.  But there is a second part to this prophecy that we are less familiar with.  The scripture states that had the Lord not sent Elijah, “the whole earth [would have been] smitten with a curse” (D&C 110:15; Mal. 4:6). What curse was the Lord referring to?  What exactly would have happened to the world had Elijah not been sent?

Neither Root Nor Branch

This curse is actually introduced a few verses earlier.  In Malachi 4:1, we read:  

For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch (Mal. 4:1).

Roots and Branches
Here, the Lord states that not only will the wicked be burned at the second coming, but they will also be left with “neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1). While this punishment might sound strange at first, it is extremely descriptive once we learn that trees are often used throughout the scriptures to represent God’s children.  And this particular prophecy is no exception.  Elder Theodore M. Burton explained:

What is meant by the word root? Why, my roots are where I came from.  My roots are my parents, my progenitors or ancestors in a direct bloodline…. What then is meant by the word branch?  If I consider myself as the trunk of the tree, nourished and supported by my roots, then the branches constitute that which comes from me.  My branches are my children and my grandchildren, etc.[1]

The full explanation of this curse will be discussed momentarily, but first, here are a few other occasions where the Lord has used a tree to represent man.

The Allegory of the Olive Tree

The Allegory of the Olive Tree
Perhaps the first example that comes to mind is the allegory of the olive tree, as recorded in Jacob 5.  In this example, “the house of Israel,” according to the text, was “liken[ed]…unto a tame olive tree” (Jacob 5:3).  The branches of this tree, just like the Israelites, were constantly being scattered and gathered.  Similarly, when the Israelites were wicked, the tree produced bitter fruit.  When righteous, the fruit was good and desirable.

The Fruitless Fig Tree

A second example is found in the New Testament.  During the last week of Christ’s mortal ministry, Jesus and his disciples had an encounter with a fig tree that bore no figs.  In Days of the Living Christ, we get the following commentary on this fruitless fig tree:

“On Monday morning, Jesus gathered up his disciples and began the two-mile walk from Bethany to the temple.  It was an early start.  None of them had eaten breakfast. Apparently Jesus had intended to gather some of the early figs from a tree he had noticed the evening before.  It was covered with rich foliage and should have provided and early-morning snack for all of them. But when they reached the tree, there was no fruit on it.  Unlike most other trees, the fruit of the fig tree begins to develop before the foliage, so this tree was in full foliage, and should have been laden with figs.  In many respects it was like the scribes and Pharisees, all foliage, no fruit.  

“Jesus was angry with this abnormal and dissolute tree, and said: “No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever” (Mark 11:14).  It would not be until the following day that the apostles would realize what the words of the Savior had done to this tree….

“Early the next morning Jesus and his apostles commenced their two-mile journey back toward Jerusalem and the temple.  This time they apparently partook of their breakfast before leaving. At least they did not depend on the fruitless fig tree.  However, the apostles were astonished when they came to the tree.  It had withered to the roots as though it had been struck by a blight.  Peter spoke up and said: “Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away”’ (Mark 11:21).[2]

At first glance, one might assume that Jesus was upset with a mere fig tree for not providing breakfast one morning.  But once we come to understand that the fig tree represented the nation of Israel as a whole, we soon realize that Jesus was upset with the Jews for not bearing good fruit.  Here, again, we find a tree representing a people.

The Tree of Life

Perhaps the most powerful example of a tree representing one of God’s children comes from Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life.  Here is what the angel, who acted as Nephi’s guide, had to say about the meaning of the tree:

Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And I [Nephi] answered him, saying: 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 above all things.
The Tree of Life
And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. (1 Ne. 11:21-23).

Here we learn that the tree of life is the “love of God.”  But what is the love of God exactly? The apostle John tells us: 

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

In other words, the love of God is Jesus.  By deduction, we can say that the tree of life in Lehi’s vision represents the Savior.  And as it turns out, there are many more hints in the Book of Mormon that clue us into this insight.  For example, Lehi tells us that the fruit of this particular tree filled his soul with “exceedingly great joy” (1 Ne 8:12).  Lehi’s description of this fruit is very similar to how Alma the younger described the atonement of Christ. After finding forgiveness for his sins, Alma said, “there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy” (Alma 36:21). Furthermore, Nephi tells us that this very fruit is “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Ne. 15:36) and what greater gift has the Father given us than his Son?  Another clue comes from the opening verses of 1 Nephi 11.  Here the Spirit asked Nephi if he believed that his father saw a tree.  After Nephi responded that he did, the angel said, “blessed art thou, Nephi, because thou believest in the Son” (1 Nephi 11:6), which implies that the tree and the Son are one and the same.  In fact, Elder Jeffery R. Holland confirmed this association when he wrote:

“The Tree of Life and its precious fruit are symbols of Christ and his redemption…. The life, mission, and atonement of Christ are the ultimate manifestations of the Tree of Life, the fruit of the gospel, the love of God.”[3]

From all that we have discussed above, we can safely conclude that Lehi’s tree of life represents Jesus, and the fruit of the tree represents Christ’s atonement.

Trees of Righteousness

In the first chapter of the book of Psalms we read the following:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly…his delight is in the law [Torah] of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither (Psalms 1:1-3; emphasis added).

In other words, those who study the scriptures, according to the Psalmist, will become like a tree.  With Lehi’s tree of life interpretation, we might say that those who study the scriptures will become like Christ.  Similarly, Isaiah tells us that those who turn their lives over to Christ will be called “trees of righteousness” (Isa. 61:3).  This idea also falls right in line with Alma the Younger’s recommended experiment as recorded in Alma 32. In this sermon, those who are willing to plant the word of God in their souls are promised by Alma that if they nourish it, the seed will eventually grow to “be a tree springing up unto everlasting life” (Alma 32:41).  Those who reach this stage may “pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white” (Alma 32:41-42).  In other words, those who follow the Savior may become like the Savior, the ultimate tree of life.
The Axe is Laid at the Root of the Tree

The Axe is Laid at the Root of the Tree

As we have just learned, we are all trees in the sight of God, producing either good or bitter fruit, and “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20).  For the time being, the Lord is allowing those who are producing bitter fruit to continue their course.  However, the Lord has said on several occasions that “the ax is laid at the root of the trees,” and the time will come when “every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit shall be hewn down and cast into the fire” (D&C 97:7; Matt. 3:10; Alma 5:52).  

This brings us back full circle to the curse found in Malachi. In Malichi, the Lord says that at the second coming, the axe will fall upon the wicked and when this occurs, the wicked will be left with “neither root nor branch” (Mal. 4:1).  In other words, they will be severed from their ancestors (roots), their spouse, and their descendants (branches). 

Fig Leaves

It is interesting that when Adam and Eve partook of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they immediately made aprons of fig leaves and adorned them.  What is more interesting however, is the fact that Adam and Eve adorned these aprons right after they received the power to multiply and replenish the earth.  This is significant because in many ancient cultures, as well as in the scriptures, the color green, figs, aprons, and loins, all represent fertility and reproduction.[4]  It is a coincidence that Adam and Eve adorned these aprons as soon as they fell and became capable of having children?  Hardly!  These aprons represented their
Fig Leaf Aprons
new power of procreation and thus, a step towards Godhood.  In fact, you could say that by putting on these aprons, Adam and Eve were becoming trees themselves.[5] And as trees, they were taking the first step towards becoming like Christ, who is the tree of life. They were taking their place at the head of the human family and would soon have roots and branches of their own as a direct result of their
 new found ability to reproduce and have children.

But at the second coming, as we learn from Malachi, only those who follow Christ get to keep these roots and branches in the next life. And to take it one step farther, the Lord said a few verses later that had he not sent Elijah to restore the sealing power, “the whole earth [would have been] smitten with a curse” (D&C 110:15; Mal. 4:6).  In other words, had Elijah not been sent, the sealing powers of the priesthood would not have been restored to the earth and no one, not even the righteous, would have been exempt from this curse of being severed from their roots and branches. No sealing power means no temple ordinances, which also means no eternal families for the righteous or wicked. Moroni phrased it this way: had Elijah not come, “the whole earth [including the righteous] would be utterly wasted at his coming” (Joseph Smith–History 1:39). 

Now that we better understand the reasons behind Elijah’s appearance, we are able to retrace our steps a bit and discuss the previous three appearances that also occurred at the Kirtland temple in connection with Elijah’s appearance, and see what insights we can obtain by so doing. We start at the beginning.    

Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery Have a Vision

On April 03, 1836, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery are praying in the Kirtland Temple, when suddenly, in their own words, “the veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened” (D&C 110:1).  During this vision, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were visited by four resurrected beings, which concluded with Elijah’s appearance. 

The first to appear to Joseph and Oliver, however, was the Lord, who came to accept the very house that was just dedicated to him days prior.[6]  After the Lord, it would be Moses who would make an appearance. The record states: 

The heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north (D&C 110:11).

It is easy to see why Moses was the one chosen to restore the keys of Israel’s gathering to Joseph and Oliver, for Moses held these keys during his mortal ministry when he gathered the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage.  However, this is where things get a little more difficult to make sense of in the record.  We continue:

After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed (D&C 110:12).

Two obstacles stand in our way of understating the purpose behind this third appearance of Elias:

1.  The identity of this Elias is somewhat unclear.
2.  There is no mention of any keys being restored to Joseph and Oliver by this individual.  Instead, we are told that Elias “committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham.”  What exactly is the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, and why was it committed to Joseph Smith?
 
Let us address each of these obstacles in order.

Who was Elias?

There are several possibilities of who this Elias may have been:
  1. Elias was the Greek form of the name Elijah. In other words, when Elias is referenced in the New Testament, it usually refers to Elijah because our New Testament was translated from the Greek. Could it have been Elijah who appeared to Joseph and Oliver here? While it is certainly possible, this seems unlikely because as we have already discussed, Elijah was the fourth and final prophet to appear to Joseph and Oliver in the Kirtland Temple. 
  2. A second possibility may be the same individual whom the Lord referred to as Elias in D&C 27:6 and whom Joseph Smith later identified as Noah.[7] Could it have been Noah who appeared to Joseph and Oliver here? This is certainly a possibility and believed by some.
  3. Interestingly enough, there was also an ancient Israelite prophet named Elias. In the words of Elder Boyd K. Packer, “we know very little about him, but he existed.”[8] In fact, Elder Packer also went on record stating that he believed this ancient prophet to be the very Elias who appeared to Joseph and Oliver at the Kirtland temple.[9] Certainly this is a real possibility as well.
  4. Elias is also a title, meaning forerunner or restorer,[10] which is why Jesus during his mortal ministry would sometimes refer to John the Baptist as Elias.[11] Could it have been John the Baptist who appeared at the Kirtland temple? After all, one cannot dismiss John the Baptist’s role in the restoration, and it certainly would not have been the first time John the Baptist appeared to Joseph and Oliver as a resurrected being.[12] Furthermore, John the Baptist had already once filled this roll of Elias once by preparing the way for Christ’s mortal ministry.[13] 
  5.  Or, since Elias is a title and could be applied to any number of prophets, perhaps this Elias was a prophet whom we have yet to consider? 
  6. In fact, since Elias could be applied to any number of individuals, there have been many, including Elder Bruce R. McConkie,[14] who have wondered if perhaps this Elias was none other than Abraham himself, since, after all, it was the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham which was committed to Joseph and Oliver. 
While we do not know for certain which prophet filled this role of Elias,[15] these are the leading candidates.  But more important than who appeared as Elias, is what this Elias restored, which was “the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham” (D&C 110:12).  But what exactly is the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham?

The Dispensation of the Gospel of Abraham

Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained:

“[Elias did not restore] the gospel of Christ, for that had already been received, but [he restored] the gospel of Abraham, meaning the great commission which God gave Abraham in his day. That commission dealt with families, those of Abraham and his seed, who were and are promised continuance “in the world and out of the world…as innumerable as the stars.”[16]

In other words, the phrase the gospel of Abraham, could be rephrased as the gospel given to Abraham, or the Abrahamic covenant.  And what is the Abrahamic covenant? – It is the promise that if we are righteous, we, along with our eternal companions, will have eternal posterity in the world to come.  It is the promises associated with celestial marriage.  Indeed, in the words of Elder McConkie, it was through Elias that “the marriage discipline of Abraham was restored.”[17]

And since no keys were given to Joseph and Oliver by this Elias, it is likely that Elias was sent mainly to teach Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery about this Abraham covenant, including all the promises and covenants associated with it, in order that they might fully understand them.  If this is true, the timing of this event is very interesting because Joseph Smith had just begun translating the Book of Abraham (which contain many of the promises associated with the Abrahamic covenant), just a few months before this event at Kirtland occurred.  Was Joseph Smith given the Book of Abraham to prepare him for this experience at the hand of Elias?

Finally, after Elias it would be the prophet Elijah who would appear, whom we have already discussed.

The Three-Fold Mission of the Church

When we take a step back, we can see that this whole vision at Kirtland was laid out in a very natural process: 
  • With Moses we are gathered in through missionary work.
  • Once gathered, Elias is able to teach us about the promises given to Abraham, or the Abrahamic Covenant.
  • Finally, through Elijah we actually receive these ordinances, first for ourselves and then for our dead.
Interestingly enough, these three visits also coincide with the threefold mission of the Church.[18]  For example:

1. Proclaim the gospel (through the keys of the gathering restored by Moses).

2. Perfect the Saints (by teaching them about the promises made to Abraham and restored through Elias).

3. Redeem the dead (through the sealing keys restored by Elijah).

Truly, these events at Kirtland played an extremely important role in the restoration of the gospel.


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Notes: 


[1] Burton, God’s Greatest Gift, pp. 194-95.
[2] Skousen, Days of the Living Christ, 2:595, 603.
[3] Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, pp. 160-62.
[4] See for example, Gaskill, The Lost Language of Symbolism, pp. 51-52, 62-64, 93-96, 342.
[5] Gaskill, The Lost Language of Symbolism, p. 342.
[6] D&C 110:7; D&C 109.
[7] D&C 27:7 identifies Elias as the angel who appeared to Zacharias.  Luke 1:26 identifies this same angel as Gabriel, whom Joseph Smith identified as Noah (see Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 147).  We can therefore conclude that the Elias in D&C 27:6-7 is the prophet Noah.
[8] Packer, The Things of the Soul, p. 208.
[9] Packer, The Things of the Soul, p. 211.
[10] McConkie, Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man, p. 102–104
[11] JST Matt 17:10-14; See also Luke 1:17.
[12] D&C 13.
[13] Luke 1:17; JST Matt 17:10-14.
[14] McConkie, Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man, p. 102–104; McConkie, “This Final Glorious GospelDispensation,” Ensign, April 1980.
[15] President Joseph Fielding Smith acknowledged, “What prophet this Elias is that was sent to restore these keys is not definitely known” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 2:49).
[18] Chase, New Testament Study Guide, pt. 1: The Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ, p. 230; Bair, The Religious Educator, 3:2:98.