We all run the risk of having proximity blindness, the inability to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. Sometimes a bird's eye view is required for improved perspective. When we're too close to something, we may lack the grand view of things that are seen better from a distance. Truth is learned in improved perspective.
I once heard that an expert is someone who has traveled more than 100 miles to be the speaker. That viewpoint suggests that someone we're too close to, someone we know personally, that might be our friend, that might live in our neighborhood - well, certainly THEY could never be an expert! We know them. We're close to them. "WHAT??? My cousin Bob is an expert? I can't even imagine that."
An example of this proximity blindness occurred in the Bible. I believe Jesus Christ is the ultimate expert. He is the Son of God who performed many miracles that everyone seemed to have heard about. There were plenty of witnesses who told what they saw, but what did Christ's neighbors think about it?
1 And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him.
2 And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands?
3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.
4 But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.
5 And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them.
6 And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching.
Notice that his neighbors were "offended at him" while Christ "marvelled because of their unbelief." And because of that unbelief, those people didn't get to witness any mighty work. Truly their loss. Proximity blindness made them miss some of the greatest events of all time.
The whole idea for this post started with a conversation with a friend. He's studied the Bible for several decades. He believes it. He lives it the best he can. He's a good man.
He accepts the idea that God has always spoken through prophets, and then when Christ came, through apostles too. They were the workhorses of building up the Christian ideas after Christ went back to His Father.
My friend told me the greatest prophet was Jeremiah. When I asked him why, he said it was just because he was his favorite. I get that. Some teachers "speak to us" more than others. We just seem to "get them" better.
Then we discussed the fact that there are prophets and apostles living today, in 2017, and that anyone can hear them. They are God's mouthpieces who are just as important as Jeremiah or Isaiah or Moses. He struggles with that idea.
I believe that this is a classic case of proximity blindness, only it has to do with a timeline rather than distance. Living prophets and apostles are with us in our present time, right here, right now. These people are not historical figures from centuries ago like Peter, James, and John. Instead they have names like Tom, Russell, and Jeff.
It seems that there is some particular amount of time that must pass before our brains can easily accept someone as credible, as an expert. Witnesses can tell what they heard, what they saw, what they experienced, but then it's up to us to decide whether we believe those witnesses.
Less distant, chronologically, but still around 200 years ago, God called another prophet, exactly after the pattern He has always done. It started when a boy (at the time) spent many months studying God's word and sincerely wanted to know what God wanted him to do. He eventually read these words in his family Bible.
5 If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
6 But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering...
Being about 14 years old at the time, I suppose he hadn't yet developed the cynicism and unbelief that often comes with age. So he just took the scriptures at their word and asked God. And God answered.
That young man had much to learn, but he certainly learned. In time, God chose him as a prophet and asked him to do another "mighty work" on behalf of His Son, Jesus Christ. It was God's mighty work, but like prophets and apostles of old, this man was asked to do the labor. This man's name was Joseph Smith.
In keeping with the idea that prophets are to give a message to the world on behalf of God, Joseph Smith was asked to do several things. The most notable thing was that he was the human instrument through which GOD brought forth the Book of Mormon. This book isn't about Mormon (an ancient prophet who compiled the historical records for the book) or Joseph Smith. It is another testament of Jesus Christ.
Anyone can read the and decide for themselves if it's more of the word of God about His Son (in addition to the Bible) or not. It supports the Bible and helps clarify the more difficult parts to understand, but in the end, its purpose is to bring people to a fuller understanding of Jesus Christ. Personally, I've never understood why anyone professing to believe the witnesses about Christ in the Bible would not want to read further witness from another people He visited after His resurrection. That's part of the history recorded in the Book of Mormon.
Because of historical proximity, that Joseph Smith was much closer to NOW than Peter, James, or John were, we have many more written witnesses of what happened. There are multiple witnesses, and we get to choose which ones we believe.
Anyone in our present time is free to believe or not believe any witness statement. However, if someone were to think like Jesus' neighbors did back in His lifetime and become offended by the whole thing, they would certainly miss THESE mighty works that have occurred and are occurring because of God's calling of the prophet, Joseph Smith. In fact, God Himself calls it a "marvelous work" (Doctrine and Covenants 4:1, 6:1, 12:1, Isaiah 29:14)
Like the witnesses who spoke about Christ, the majority don't believe them. In the past, Christ himself prophesied:
For in that day, for my sake shall the Father work a work, which shall be a great and a marvelous work among them; and there shall be among them those who will not believe it, although a man shall declare it unto them.
So when it came to my friend who has been a devout Christian his whole life, he believed the witnesses about Joseph Smith being a prophet. He accepted the "marvelous work and a wonder" that happened. Maybe it was distant enough to be believable in his mind. If you ask him, he'll tell you that God has been guiding him to his belief. But he's still struggling with the contemporary guys, Tom, Russell, Jeff, Dallin, and the others who are actual LIVING prophets and apostles today.
Since the time of Joseph Smith, God has continued to replace the prophets and apostles, exactly like in the Bible when the remaining 11 of Christ's apostles had to fill the gap left by Christ's betrayer, Judas Iscariot. The new apostle was named Matthias (Acts 1:12:26)
Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood when he was martyred. That's not unlike other prophets that have given their lives to bring God's message to the people. Christ Himself said:
49 Therefore also said the wisdom of God, I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute:
50 That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation;
51 From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation.
When someone is willing to lay down their life to defend their witness, that's a reasonably strong witness. They were certainly committed. But hey, there have been people willing to die for what they believe and they've turned out to be wrong, so you can't just take that kind of witness by itself. There is a better and more sure way to know what's true, but I'll get to that at the end of this post.
When Joseph Smith was martyred, there needed to be a replacement. God Himself set up the system and it has worked marvelously since that time. The next prophet was Brigham Young, then John Taylor, and on down to Thomas Monson.
So here we are in 2017 with living prophets and apostles whose responsibility is to deliver the CURRENT word of God for our time, just like prophets in the Bible did in their time. Whether my friend, or you, believe what I'm saying is up to you to decide. There are a lot of false prophets out there and it can be tough to choose what's right, but there are a few clues you can follow.
First of all, do it the simplest way possible just like the boy, Joseph Smith, did. Just ask God and trust that He will answer your sincere question. But notice the caveat James spoke about (James 1:5-6) - "but let him ask in faith, nothing wavering."
My personal thought is that God wants us to genuinely and sincerely seek truth. He is the source of ALL truth so he wants us to ask Him. But I don't believe He wants to be treated like a Magic 8 Ball where we flippantly ask questions and expect truth from heaven to instantly lighten our minds.
I'd like to point out that when Joseph Smith followed James' counsel, he had been sincerely studying the Bible and trying to get his questions answered for MONTHS. There was some serious effort on Joseph's part before he even found that passage from James, but when he found it, he went and asked in total faith that God would answer him. God will do that for each of us too.
There are other clues God gave us on how to understand messages from Him. It was a revelation for Oliver Cowdery when he was trying to understand and translate ancient writings. Oliver thought all he had to do was ask. Instead God told Oliver he should study as well. Imagine that... effort is required on our part. It helps us grow. But after the studying, we must ask, and then God told him some of the methods He uses to communicate with us:
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
There is a promise that is contained at the end of the Book of Mormon associated with asking God about ALL truth. It has been successfully put to the test by literally millions of people and is often a starting point for someone to investigate the very claim made in this post - that there are living prophets and apostles on the earth right now. The Book of Mormon was revealed to God through his prophet, Joseph Smith, and was given as a tool for anyone to learn more about Jesus Christ. After reading the book, the promise suggests how a person might know all this is real and not a big hoax. The last prophet who compiled the records that make up that book said this:
3 Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.
4 And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
Notice the details:
Some people who have sincerely applied this test have had instant knowledge from God that what they read is true. Others have had a quiet feeling in their heart to keep studying to learn more. My experience with applying this promise took many weeks, but it was SO worth the effort.
It can be different for every person, but don't stop asking and seeking. The (eventual) prophet, Brigham Young, took two full years of studying when he was presented with the Book of Mormon and the claims made here before he even decided to join the restored Church of Jesus Christ. It was because of the sincerity of his continued study that brought him to be one of those special witnesses for God.
So my claim here, and to my friend, is that there are living prophets and apostles on the earth today, just as Christ himself organized His church 2000 years ago. My friend is still on the path of belief, but notice the point here: he is STILL ON THE PATH seeking the truth. I have faith that he'll certainly get there as he continues to be a humble seeker of God's truth. I have faith that I will get there too as I continue to seek God's will for me, as well as anyone else who follows that path.
Remember the promise that if we will make the effort to study the claims, ask God sincerely and with real intent to understand truth, then by the power of the Holy Ghost, we may know the truth of ALL things. The claim that God's word is given to the world right now through living messengers is too important, in my mind, to be taken lightly.