Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452, was a polymath of the Italian Renaissance whose interests and talents included painting, sculpture, architecture, engineering, science, mathematics, anatomy, and much more. He is arguably history’s most notable Renaissance man, or in other words, he was knowledgeable and proficient in a wide range of studies. He is known for his paintings, the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, which is the most reproduced religious painting of all time according to Art through the Ages, 1970, pp. 450–56. He is also known for his creation of flying machines, adding machines, his work in a hospital dissecting human corpses for his anatomical studies and detailed drawings of muscles, tendons, and other visible features of the human body. As an engineer, he devised a system of movable barricades to defend Venice and also created a method for diverting the flow of the Arno river. He also produced a schematic for a single-span 720 ft. bridge for Beyazid II of Constantinople. The invention of the parachute and the crossbow have also been attribute to him. He is quoted to say, “Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.”
Another Renaissance man was Galileo, who was a noted mathematician, physicist, musician and artist. Ibn al-Haytham, an Arab physicist, astronomer, mathematician, ophthalmologist, engineer, and inventor is sometimes referred to as the “father of modern optics.” A more recent historical figure and one of America’s first Renaissance men was Thomas Jefferson who was an architect, author, lawyer, musician, botanist, and an inventor. He played the violin, spoke at least five languages, was one of America’s Founding Fathers and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He also served as the third president of the United States between 1801 and 1809.
There are some remarkable Renaissance men alive today. One such man is Brian May, one of the founding members of the rock band Queen. Brian is a musician and world-renowned guitarist and songwriter who as a teenager with his father, designed and built his first electric guitar, which he named “Red Special” and still uses today. He is also a mathematician and an astronomer with a PhD in astrophysics and serves as a NASA consultant with its New Horizon Pluto mission. He also has a Bachelor of Science degree with honors in physics. In 2019 he was awarded the Lawrence J. Burpee Medal of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for outstanding contributions to the advancement of geography. This Bohemian Renaissance man was told by a fellow astronomer during the 700th episode of BBC’s astronomy documentary The Sky at Night, “I don’t know a scientist who looks as much like Isaac Newton as you do.”
There is one more polymath I would like to credit as a classic Renaissance man. His name is Nephi and he lived in Jerusalem approximately six hundred years b.c. Nephi was a bowyer, fletcher, archer, hunter, orienteer, metallurgist, smelter, blacksmith, coppersmith, goldsmith, silversmith, carpenter, craftsman, shipwright, mariner, builder, colonizer, founding father, ruler, teacher, historian, poet, psalmist, and historian. This is not all, though. What separates Nephi from almost all other Renaissance men was his discipleship and devotion to Jesus Christ. Because of his complete fidelity and precise unwavering obedience to the Lord, which resulted in the manifestation of the Lord to this man, we add prophet to his résumé. Or as Nephi wrote:
2 Nephi 9:29 But to be is good if they unto the of God.
For as Nephi lamented in the verse before:
28 O that cunning of the evil one! O the , and the frailties, and the of men! When they are they think they are , and they unto the of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.
In other words, no matter how learned–or educated–a man is, his learning cannot save him. It only has the power to enrich him while he is in this world. And so he must perish. Don’t let scholars fool you either. Scholars may know all there is to know about God in as far as their learning about all that prophets have ever expounded, but that is not at all the same as knowing God. Knowing about God and knowing God are very different. Nephi may have known about God in his youth, but he did not begin to know God until his father, Lehi, became a visionary man. It wasn’t until the Lord revealed Himself to Lehi that Nephi thought to inquire for himself whether his father was receiving revelations from God. Nephi was initially uncertain about his father’s claims, but not quite so dubious as his older brothers, Laman and Lemuel. What separated Nephi from his brothers was his own desires.
1 Nephi 2:16 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did me, and did my heart that I did all the words which had been spoken by my ; wherefore, I did not against him like unto my brothers.
It wasn’t until Nephi cried unto the Lord that his heart was softened. And because the Lord softened his heart, he did believe his father Lehi. But it was Nephi’s desires to know the mysteries of God that pleased the Lord. This is our first big clue in developing a relationship with the Lord. This was Nephi’s first encounter with the Lord. His second encounter with the Lord came by way of intercession for his brothers who would not believe their father or Nephi. When Nephi cried unto the Lord in their behalf, the Lord condescended to speak to Nephi.
1 Nephi 2:19 And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto me, saying: Blessed art thou, Nephi, because of thy , for thou hast sought me diligently, with lowliness of heart.
20 And inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments, ye shall , and shall be led to a ; yea, even a land which I have prepared for you; yea, a land which is choice above all other lands…
The Lord is inclined to bless us when we seek to bless others. Just as Lehi had interceded for the people at Jerusalem, Nephi interceded for Laman and Lemuel. Nephi’s desires, his faithfulness, and his diligence to seek the Lord proved fruitful. This is how we begin to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. But critical to improving our relationship with Him is knowing and obeying His commandments. When we have developed a sufficient trust in the Lord, our faith must be demonstrated by our obedience, for it is our obedience that is a demonstration of our faithfulness and fidelity to His will and His work, which is simply to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. After hearing the voice of the Lord, Nephi’s faith was firm:
1 Nephi 3:7 And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no unto the children of men, save he shall a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.
Contrast Nephi’s resolve with Laman and Lemuel’s murmurings:
1 Nephi 17:21 Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy.
22 And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him. And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us.
They did not care about learning the mysteries of God or seeking after Him. Their hearts were solely set upon their possessions. Furthermore, Laman and Lemuel believed that keeping the statutes and judgments of the Lord justified them. They considered themselves righteous like the people back in Jerusalem. They did not understand that the law has no power to justify. It is the law that condemns sinners for breaking it. Or as Paul declared to the Galatians:
Galatians 2:16 Knowing that a man is not by the works of the , but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the of Christ, and not by the of the : for by the works of the law shall no flesh be .
But Nephi could not have learned what he did without his father first receiving revelations and experiencing his own theophany, and then disseminating his revelatory experiences to his family. This has been the pattern from the beginning. In the Lectures on Faith, we read in the second lecture:
31 Adam thus being made acquainted with God, communicated the knowledge which he had unto his posterity; and it was through this means that the thought was first suggested to their minds that there was a God. Which laid the foundation for the exercise of their faith, through which they could obtain a knowledge of his character and also of his glory.
32 Not only was there a manifestation made unto Adam of the existence of a God, but Moses informs us, as before quoted, that God condescended to talk with Cain after his great transgression, in slaying his brother, and that Cain knew that it was the Lord that was talking with him: so that when he was driven out from the presence of his brethren, he carried with him the knowledge of the existence of a God: and through this means, doubtless his posterity became acquainted with the fact that such a being existed.
33 From this we can see that the whole human family, in the early age of their existence, in all their different branches, had this knowledge disseminated among them; so that the existence of God became an object of faith, in the early age of the world. And the evidences which these men had of the existence of a God, was the testimony of their fathers in the first instance.
34 The reason why we have been thus particular on this part of our subject, is, that this class may see by what means it was that God became an object of faith among men after the fall; and what it was that stirred up the faith of multitudes to feel after him; to search after a knowledge of his character, perfections and attributes, until they became extensively acquainted with him; and not only commune with him, and behold his glory, but be partakers of his power, and stand in his presence.
With the pattern established anew in Nephi’s family, Nephi is able to grasp the weight of his unique opportunity and take advantage of it.
1 Nephi 11:1 For it came to pass after I had desired to know the things that my father had seen, and believing that the Lord was able to make them known unto me, as I sat in mine heart I was in the Spirit of the Lord, yea, into an exceedingly high , which I never had before seen, and upon which I never had before set my foot…
Nephi had already proven true and faithful to the Lord in risking all his worldly possessions and even his own life in obtaining the brass plates, withholding nothing. His obedience and diligence evidenced his fidelity to God. In the Lectures on Faith, lecture six, we read:
7 Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things: it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has, for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life.
Nephi had proven himself, just as Moses and Isaiah and now his father Lehi before him had proven themselves faithful. And now Nephi was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord until he found himself upon an exceedingly high mountain where the Lord grants his desire, which is to see and understand his father’s vision. It wasn’t until the previous chapter where Lehi taught concerning a Messiah that Nephi even considered such a concept. And now he is taught concerning the condescension of Jesus Christ. When the Spirit of the Lord said, “Look!” He departed and an angel came in His stead to teach Nephi further. Neither Nephi nor Lehi were the first prophets in the record of the Book of Mormon to whom the Lord manifested Himself in the spirit. The brother of Jared had a similar experience:
Ether 3:14 Behold, I am he who was from the foundation of the world to my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the and the Son. In me shall all mankind have , and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my and my daughters.
15 And never have I myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man in me as thou hast. Seest thou that ye are created after mine own ? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image.
16 Behold, this , which ye now , is the of my ; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh.
Nephi’s entire life experience from departing Jerusalem to traveling in the wilderness to reaching the promised land and walking with the Lord is a perfect fit of the symbolism of the vision of the tree of life and also the temple endowment ordinance. The entire first book of Nephi, in essence, is an endowment parallel with Adam and Eve’s exit from the garden of Eden and making their way through the lone and dreary wilderness, learning and obeying the commandments of the Lord in their efforts by trial and error to be brought back to converse with the Lord through the veil. We see the same with the brother of Jared and company. We see the same with the exit of the Israelites from Egypt and their journey to their promised land of Jerusalem with Moses as a true messenger. The pattern is always the same. In the New Testament, we read:
John 14:21 He that hath my commandments, and them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be of my Father, and I will love him, and will myself to him.
22 Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?
23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will him, and we will come unto him, and make our with him.
And so we see this exemplified in Nephi’s life. Both the Son and the Father had made their abode with Nephi:
2 Nephi 31:11 And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son.
12 And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.13 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no and no deception before God, but with real , repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are to take upon you the of Christ, by —yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.
14 But, behold, my beloved brethren, thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying: After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should me, it would have been for you that ye had not known me.
15 And I heard a voice from the Father, saying: Yea, the of my Beloved are true and faithful. He that to the , the same shall be saved.
16 And now, my beloved brethren, I know by this that unless a man shall to the end, in following the of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved.
Nephi exhorts the reader to walk that same path that he did and follow Jesus Christ diligently, obeying precisely everything the Lord commands, seeking His mysteries and seeking to be taught by Him who is no respector of persons, but gives to all liberally and does not upbraid. To the reader he declares:
2 Nephi 32:1 And now, behold, my beloved brethren, I suppose that ye ponder somewhat in your hearts concerning that which ye should do after ye have entered in by the way. But, behold, why do ye ponder these things in your hearts?
2 Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost?
3 speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, upon the of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will you all things what ye should do.
4 Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
5 For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will unto you all things what ye should do.
6 Behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and there will be no more doctrine given until after he shall himself unto you in the flesh. And when he shall manifest himself unto you in the flesh, the things which he shall say unto you shall ye observe to do.
In other words, if you desire to know more beyond what has been given to the general population, you have to ask and knock. You must diligently seek Him if you want to know His mysteries. You must be obedient to all His sayings. If you don’t, it is because of unbelief and slothfulness. Nephi’s final chapters carry the impact and weight of eternal salvation and damnation according to one’s faithfulness and diligence or lack thereof, which he seals up with finality.
2 Nephi 33:13 And now, my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come.
14 And you that will not partake of the goodness of God, and respect the words of the , and also my , and the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God, behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell, for these words shall you at the last day.
15 For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must . Amen.
Nephi was the epitome of a Renaissance man. All the knowledge and skills, which he possessed were merely talents employed diligently and faithfully in bringing to pass a great work of the Lord for the eternal benefit of countless others. More importantly, he was fearless and unwavering in keeping with exactness all the commandments given to Him by the Lord. And that is the real lesson.