As always, use the Gospel Doctrine manual in your preparation. Here are some supplemental ideas that may be helpful:
It might be helpful to review the story line since Mosiah 27. After their miraculous conversion, the sons of Mosiah went to the land of Nephi to preach among the Lamanites. Alma stayed behind, and was made first chief judge. During his tenure, he endured the emergence of Nehor and his followers, and a war with the Lamanites. In Alma 4:17, he relinquished the judgment seat, and commenced to preach among his own people.
Alma 5 – Alma’s words to the people of Zarahemla.
2 – “to the people in the church” While the sons of Mosiah were in the land of Nephi looking for new converts, Alma was doing something closer to “reactivation” work – preaching to the people “in the church.” Alma 5 is a powerful sermon which some have called a ‘spiritual mid-term” or spiritual checklist comprising approximately fifty questions (I counted forty question marks). The discourse may remind us of a temple recommend interview. Sincere readers of this chapter will be compelled to do some introspection.
3 – “having been consecrated by my father” Alma states his authority and keys to administer among the people, and recounts his father’s formation of a church after having been delivered out of the hands of King Noah.
6 – “have you sufficiently retained in remembrance…” Three times, Alma asks the people if they are remembering their not-so-distant past. They were delivered from King Noah, and then from bondage. He seems to be asking, “do you remember how we got out of that mess we were in? Do you remember that only God could get us out of that mess?”
7 – “he changed their hearts” Throughout the scriptures, the Holy Ghost is the agent of change. We, as other mortals, can persuade and cajole and push and criticize and encourage and nag, but the Holy Ghost has the power to change people from the inside-out. People are rarely criticized into changing. If we really want lasting change for ourselves and others, the best strategy is to get the spirit into our lives.
9 – “their souls did expand” What a wonderful phrase. The world has a shrinking influence on us, making us self-centered and ordinary and small, but the gospel of Jesus Christ expands our views, our enjoyments, our charity and our souls.
14 – “have ye received his image in your countenances” We’ve all heard the old saying, “you cannot judge a book by its cover.” And that is absolutely true of books. But countenances are not books. A countenance is a window into the soul. Brigham Young said, “Those who have got the forgiveness of their sins have countenances that look bright and they will shine with the intelligence of Heaven.” (Cited in James E. Faust, To Reach Even unto You [Deseret Book, 1980], 28.) For others, Isaiah said, “Their countenance doth witness against them” (Isaiah 3:9).
18-19 – “brought before the tribunal of God” During the period when Alma was unconscious, and going through is own conversion/born again experience, he was horrified at the thought of coming into the presence of God, saying that they very thought filled him with “inexpressible horror” (Alma 36:14). Since that time, we see Alma using this idea – a sudden reunion with God – as a teaching tool. He asks others how they would feel if they were about to be reunited with God.
19 – “can ye look up” Rather than asking, “have you repented,” or “are you clean,” Alma asks a simple question – “can ye look up?” When we are ashamed, we look down, preferring to avoid eye contact. But if we are continually repenting, and the Lord knows of our repentance, perhaps it will be easier to “look up” when we are restored to God’s presence (an interesting contrast is in Alma 12:14, where Alma tells those in Ammonihah “ye will not dare to look up.”)
22 – “having your garments stained” many scriptures speak of having our garments stained with sin. While these verses have always been interesting to me, they never meant much until I had my own “staining” experience. On my way to speak at a “Know Your Religion” event in Kaysville, Utah, I stopped at a fast food place and bought a big burrito. I ate it in my car, and unbeknownst to me until it was almost time to start, I had spilled a mixture of hot sauce and taco meat and everything else through a hole in the foil onto my khaki slacks. I was mortified. I spent several minutes in the restroom trying to remove the stain, but time was limited and I couldn’t get it all out. I kept my sport-coat buttoned during my presentation hoping that no one would notice, but I’ll never forget how it felt to stand in front of that audience with my “garments stained!” Having my khaki’s stained with a burrito in front of the Kaysville 6th ward is one thing, having them stained with sin and filthiness in the presence of God is another.
26 – “can ye feel so now?” “Think back to that spiritual high-point in your life,” Alma seems to be asking, “do you still feel that way? If not, what happened?” Are you growing ever upward spiritually, or have you been on a downgrade? What a sad commentary if we say, “my mission was the best two years of my life” but little or no growth has occurred since. (It’s also not a very wise thing to say in front of your spouse. “My mission was the best time of my life … things have really gone downhill since…”). It was said of Joseph Smith that he lived his life “ in crescendo.” That is what Alma wanted for the saints in Zarahemla.
34 – “bread and waters of life” This phrase may remind us of the sacrament, and also of the Savior who called himself the “bread of life” (John 6:35) and offered “living water” (John 4:10, John 7:38).
39 – “of what fold are ye?” The Book of Mormon is a very “black and white” book. It’s either this, or it’s this. Not a lot of middle ground here. Another softer way of making the same point might be by using the old saying, “Unless you have chosen the Kingdom of God first, in the end it will make no difference what you have chosen instead.” If you haven’t chosen God, what else is there?
46-47 – “I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself” We might suppose that Alma’s testimony came as a result of seeing an angel, and while that experience made quite an impression, it is not what Alma cites as the source of his testimony. Like the sons of Mosiah who were also present when the angel called them to repentance, Alma’s testimony came the good old fashioned way – fasting and praying and pondering and searching (see Alma 17:2-3).
54 – “Will ye persist in supposing that ye are better one than another” Thomas Carlyle said, “Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him.” That saying was a blessing to me on my mission. I taught people in the Philippines who couldn’t read, but I knew they farm circles around me. When we are tempted to feel spiritually superior, we might remember the bumper sticker President Dieter F. Uchtdorf mentioned: “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” We all need the Savior and his forgiveness (See “The Merciful Obtain Mercy,” April 2012 General Conference).
57 – “come ye out from the wicked, and be ye separate” This is another way of saying “be in the world but not of the world.” We are not counseled to retreat and hide from the world, but we are warned against trying to be like, or look like, or act like the world. That is the challenge. While on the one hand we are told to “stand in holy places” and “choose friends wisely,” we also remember that Jesus prayed “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15).
In the Preface to the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord declares, “Every man walketh in his own way, after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world…” (D&C 1:16). Unless we want to perish with the wicked world, we should come out of it and be separate. And yet, we must remain in the world so that others may “see [our] good works and glorify [our] Father which is in heaven” (See Matthew 5:16). Our challenge is to live in the world, but to “be separate” in our beliefs and behavior.
Alma 6 – The church in Zarahemla is set in order
1 – “preside and watch over” Alma ordains priests and elders, to preside and “watch over” the church. These duties are repeated in the restored church (see D&C 20:42, 53).
5 – “none were deprived of the privilege” There was no coercion to join the church, anyone who chose to come could enjoy the “privilege” of gathering.
6 – “in behalf of … those who knew not God” A wonderful formula, fasting and prayer over those who knew not God. What if ward families would bind together and do this?
Alma 7 – Alma’s discourse to the church in Gideon –a kinder, gentler message than that given to Zarahemla
6 – “ye are not in a state of … unbelief as were your brethren” Alma doesn’t just repeat the same talk he gave in Zarahemla. The Spirit helped him to discern the spiritual state or readiness of his audience, and he adjusted his remarks accordingly. As someone once said, “Rather than preparing a speech, prepare yourself to speak.” While those in Zarahemla were given a spiritual mid-term of about fifty penetrating questions, those in Gideon heard remarkable prophecies of Christ! One way to apply this verse to our day might be to ask, “What might we hear in General Conference if we didn’t have to be reminded of many of the same things each year?”
7 – “One thing … of more importance than they all” More important than anything else Alma could preach, he assured them that the redeemer will come and live among the people.
10 – “Born of Mary at Jerusalem” When I worked for BYU Continuing Education, I remember one day when we arrived at work and saw that all of our motor pool cars which were parked outside during the night had bumper stickers on them which said, “Alma 7:10 … Was Jesus born in Bethlehem or Jerusalem?” Apparently, some critics of the church had struck our fleet of Chevy Caprices and Astrovans, seeing this verse as a problem for the Book of Mormon. First of all, you’ll notice that Alma does not say that Jesus was born “in Jerusalem which is the city,” but born “at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers…” Alma had never been to Jerusalem, of course, and he was referencing the place from which the children of Lehi originated. According to the Bible Dictionary, Bethlehem is about five miles south of Jerusalem. Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet have written:
These words have spawned a host of heckles and sneers directed at the Book of Mormon. Persons of a skeptical and cynical spirit ask: “Didn’t Joseph Smith know that Jesus was born of Mary in Bethlehem?” We answer: Yes, he was born in Bethlehem, but he was also born at Jerusalem, meaning that Bethlehem, the smaller community, was within the environs of Jerusalem, the larger city. In our day it would be as if someone from Sandy or even Provo, Utah, had said to one somewhat unfamiliar with the Wasatch Front, “I am from Salt Lake City.” (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 4 vols. [Bookcraft, 1987-1992], 3: 51.)
11-12 – “he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people” I love these two verses. When we cover these verses in the classroom, I like to have someone read them aloud, and I ask the students to snap their fingers when they hear the word “sins,” since we all know Jesus died for our sins. The realization that we come to as a class, is that Jesus not only died for our sins, but for our “pains, afflictions, sicknesses and infirmities.” He not only died for the pain and guilt of sins we have committed, but for the pain of things which have happened to us over which we had no control. In the words of Elder Bruce C. Hafen in his excellent book The Broken Heart, “The atonement is not just for sinners.” He continues,
The Atonement not only pays for our sins, it heals our wounds—the self-inflicted ones and those inflicted from sources beyond our control. The Atonement also completes the process of our learning by perfecting our nature and making us whole. In this way, Christ’s Atonement makes us as he is. It is the ultimate source of our forgiveness, our perfection, and our peace of mind (The Broken Heart, 29).
Additionally, Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Jesus suffered our infirmities before we did. Can we presume to teach him anything about being forsaken?” (Even As I Am, pp. 116-119.)
12 – “According to the flesh” Alma repeats this phrase twice, perhaps to emphasize that Jesus will live on this earth in a physical body, and therefore will know “according to the flesh how to succor his people.” The word “succor,” in the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary means, “literally, to run to, or run to support; hence, to help or relieve when in difficulty, want or distress, to assist and deliver from suffering.”
13 – “This is the testimony which is in me” Yes, Jesus will also suffer for our sins that he might “blot out [our] transgressions.” This is the heart of the gospel or “good news” and the heart of Alma’s testimony.
14 – “Ye must repent and be born again” Alma knows all about being born again, and he had a great instructor! (see Mosiah 27:11-16, Alma 36).
15 – “Show unto your God that ye are willing” This verse answers the question – why baptism? The phrase, “Witness it unto him this day” also reminds us of the sacrament prayer, where we renew our baptismal covenant: “and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son…” (D&C 20:77).
23 – “I would that ye should be…” Not merely “I would that ye should know” or even “I would that ye should do.” The gospel is about more than just knowing and doing. It is about knowing and doing and becoming. Alma admonishes the residents of Gideon to “be humble,” to “be submissive” and to be “easy to be entreated.”
24 – “have faith, hope and charity and then…” Note the sequence! Good works are the fruits that flow from a good heart. Good works are more a fruit of being born again, than a formula for being born again.
25 – “Keep your garments spotless” The atonement cleanses us, and cleanses our garments, and is the only way to become “spotless.” The title page of the Book of Mormon ends with this phrase, “that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” The last page of the Book of Mormon contains this phrase, “unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.”
27 – “May the peace of God rest upon you” This is a beautiful conclusion to a beautiful message. I cannot think of a better way to close a talk than Alma 7:27. The “peace of God” is a different kind of peace, as Jesus taught, “My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you” (John 14:27).