One of the key concepts Joe Spencer discusses in his illuminating book, “An Other Testament” (available at Salt Press ), he explains that a change occurs among the Nephites in regards to understanding Isaiah 52 and the covenant between God and Israel.
For Nephi, man’s relationship with God and the atonement had to do with the covenant. Later, due to necessity, Abinadi changes the understanding of the covenant from one dealing with the nation to one dealing with the individual via the atonement of Christ. Later, Christ would reestablish Nephi’s understanding, without ridding us of Abinadi’s teaching.
I’ve been thinking of this and thought I’d add some thoughts of my own in connection with this. Nephi symbolizes Abraham. God made a covenant with both Abraham and Nephi in conjunction with their descendants as a group. Nephi actually understand baptism in this manner. In 2 Ne 31, he explains the “Doctrine of Christ” as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost being “one God” and we are to be one through following the steps of Christ: faith, repentance, baptism, Holy Ghost. Baptism becomes the gate through which we learn to be one with each other and the Godhead.
Abinadi represents Moses, and his face shines as Moses’ did as he relates the 10 Commandments. For Abinadi, he changes the understanding of Isaiah 52 and baptism to be an ends in itself for salvation. It is now an individual’s ordinance, so Abinadi focused on one’s personal relationship with Christ and the atonement. This is not wrong, but is incomplete. We see its emphasis through Alma’s baptizing of his flock (Mosiah 18), etc.
In 3 Nephi 11, Christ reestablishes baptism, not because authority was lost or that the baptism was wrong, but to reemphasize the covenant of Nephi. Again, we learn of the “Doctrine of Christ” which is that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are “one God”, and we are to be one, even as they are. The pattern to follow is as Nephi taught: faith, repentance, baptism and Holy Ghost. While Christ blesses individuals, his focus is on the whole covenant people, foreseeing their future collapse and restoration, etc. All of this in anticipation of them becoming one in Christ.
Today, we see baptism much in the way Abinadi did: as an individual ordinance that ties us in with the atonement of Christ. This is correct, but as with the Mosaic law, we find there is more that completes it. As Joe notes, the Mosaic Law should be viewed as a gift of grace for ancient Israel, not just a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ. Baptism is connected to the Aaronic Priesthood, which provides the keys of the Terrestrial kingdom.
But we can consider baptism in light of the “Doctrine of Christ”. It opens the gate for higher ordinances that lead us from an individual salvation through Christ to a uniting covenant of the people. Both the endowment and sealing in the temple are ordinances that unite us as a covenant people in heart, mind and voice. These ordinances reflect the covenant God made with Abraham and with Nephi, of uniting their descendants as an eternal people.
Joe notes that in focusing entirely on Abinadi’s covenant of baptism, we miss out on some very important doctrines of Christ. I highly agree. Perhaps some of my thoughts here can be a beginning of discussion. Perhaps there are better ways to consider it than what I’ve suggested.