In the LDS church the phrase “iron rod” is immediately recognized by almost everyone. This is because it is a core part of the vision of the Tree of Life and because it by itself is quite distinct. If anyone was asked what it symbolizes, they would almost certainly respond with something similar to, “to word of God”. While this is correct, the actual realized meaning has been changed over time from God’s words to his children through the scriptures, to current leader’s words to the members.
Tree of Life
In almost every culture there is some kind of depiction of a great mother tree that either gives life or supports it. In Christianity this tree is depicted in Genesis 2 as the source of Adam and Eve’s immortality in the Garden of Eden. When they were cast out of the garden then they no longer had access to this tree and became mortal. Revelation 2 describes that those that overcome the world will enter into the paradise of God and gain access to this tree again.
In the Book of Mormon, Lehi described a vision he had of this tree and mentioned that its fruit “was desirable above all other fruit“. He mentioned several very interesting things in his vision, with one very notable aspect being the “rod of iron” as it is called. This rod is described as following along the bank of the water and led directly to the tree of life. Interestingly, it is this iron rod that prevented someone from entering the water which was described as being the filthiness of this world.
As mentioned earlier, most people would describe the iron rod as being the “word of God”. This is because the meaning of the iron rod is actually given to us directly. In 1 Nephi 15, Nephi who is Lehi’s son, is discussing the vision with his brothers. The brothers ask several questions about different items in the vision with one of them being the iron rod. Nephi recorded:
“What meaneth the rod of iron which our father saw, that led to the tree?” And I said unto them that it was the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish1 Nephi 15:23-24
Someone may naturally ask what the “word of God” actually means. There are likely very nuanced definitions, however I think a very simple one would be the scriptures. When God speaks to us then it becomes scripture and is profitable for us individually. This definition is found in the 8th Article of Faith which equates the scriptures as being the word of God.
In the LDS church, the iron rod or rod of iron have been referenced almost 150 times through conference talks or magazine articles. In almost all of these references there is a clear or implied assumption that the iron rod is the word of God as found in the scriptures. This definition has held steady until somewhat recently.
We can see this from a 2007 talk given by Elder Bednar, titled A Reservoir of Living Water, where he discusses the iron rod at length and directly equates it to the scriptures. The entire talk is in fact a discussion about the extreme importance of the scriptures. He mentioned:
The scriptures contain the words of Christ and are a reservoir of living water to which we have ready access and from which we can drink deeply and long. … Are you and I daily reading, studying, and searching the scriptures in a way that enables us to hold fast to the rod of ironElder Bednar
According to Elder Bednar, studying the scriptures are what leads us back to Christ. Interestingly though, during the same year Elder Andersen also gave a talk about the iron rod and directly equated it to the words of the leaders of the LDS church. In his talk, titled Hold Fast to the Words of Prophets, he mentioned:
The iron rod represents the words of the living prophets. We must also hold fast to the word of God as delivered by the living prophets.Elder Andersen
Strangely Elder Anderson continues in his talk by mentioning that we must memorize the names and images of the Apostles and First Presidency and then study their personal lives. All this because they are representatives of Christ, and as such studying them means we are becoming more like Christ. This slight change in definition has massive implications.
This subtle change was reiterated in a 2014 talk given by Elder Walker, titled Follow the Prophet. In this talk Elder Walker highly extolled President Monson and mentioned him as a guide which would lead us to Christ. Elder Walker mentioned:
As we follow [President Monson] and try to be more like him, we will inevitably succeed in being more faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.Elder Walker
According to Elder Walker, we no longer need the scriptures for our guide. We just need to emulate our current leader. I certainly agree that there are some attributes of President Monson that are worthy of emulation, however I don’t think that he should become a middleman on our path to God. If I want to be more like Christ, then I can study his life directly in the scriptures.
I have noticed the denigration of the scriptures and elevation of the leaders continuing more and more. We can see this in a conference talk earlier this year. Elder Haynie in his talk, A Living Prophet for the Latter Days, mentioned that we effectively don’t even need the scriptures anymore. According to his talk, our current leader is really all that we need. He mentioned:
The doctrine and principles that we must follow to survive spiritually and endure physically are found in the words of a living prophet. … So the key is to follow the living prophet. … That is why we should not seek to use the words of past prophets to dismiss the teachings of living prophets.Elder Haynie
Elder Haynie doesn’t specifically mention the iron rod in his talk. However today if anyone said the iron rod is the word of God then it would mean the word of God are the words of the current leader of the LDS church. The iron rod is no longer the words of God in the scriptures, but the words of a man who happens to lead the church. Again, this is a subtle shift with enormous implications.
While I agree that God uses prophets and the scriptures themselves are a collection of the writing of prophets. The major change is previously someone had to be an actual prophet of God, they had to receive God’s word, and it had to be written down to become scripture.
Today someone doesn’t need to be a prophet they just need to be the leader of the LDS church. They don’t need to receive God’s word they just need to make an announcement. Lastly, they don’t need to write anything God told them down they just need to do or say something, and it is heralded as binding. Even the most well-intentioned people can make mistakes and if those mistakes can’t be corrected then where does that lead us?
As we saw previously, Nephi taught his brothers that they needed to search and follow the word of God and if they did, they would “never perish”. The word of God they had at that time was any written material they brought with them along with the brass plates which they obtained in 1 Nephi 3. In fact, the brass plates were so important that the Lord commanded Lehi to obtain them from Laban. When they were finally brought to Lehi he mentioned:
And we had obtained the records which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable; yea, even of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children.1 Nephi 5:21
A later prophet named Benjamin was teaching his sons about the importance of the brass plates and specifically mentioned why they were so vital to obtain. He said:
I say unto you, my sons, were it not for [the brass plates], which have been kept and preserved by the hand of God, that we might read and understand of his mysteries, and have his commandments always before our eyes, that even our fathers would have dwindled in unbeliefMosiah 1:5
Of course, a logical question would be, why did they need the brass plates if they had Lehi, Nephi, or Benjamin among them since they were all great prophets of God? Why would they dwindle in unbelief without the scriptures? Isn’t a prophet, according to LDS teachings, living scripture?
Another useful example of the importance of the scriptures is found in Helaman 3. In this chapter Mormon, who abridged Helaman’s writings, marveled how as the people turned to God and followed God’s word then God started to bless them greatly. He mentioned:
Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God, which is quick and powerful, which shall divide asunder all the cunning and the snares and the wiles of the devil, and lead the man of Christ in a strait and narrow course across that everlasting gulf of misery which is prepared to engulf the wickedHelaman 3:29
It was the word of God in the hearts and minds of the people that was the great turning point in their lives. They didn’t follow their leaders better, harder, or stronger. They followed the word of God to become more like Christ and emulate his attributes.
The book of Acts in the New Testament describes how the apostles went from city to city preaching the good news of the gospel. They had varied levels of success and were sadly cast out of several cities. However, one very notable city was Berea which was located in modern day Macedonia. When Paul and his companion Silas entered Berea, they began teaching the people of the city, however instead of immediately rejecting the strange new teachings, the Berean Jews searched the scriptures to see if the message could be true. Acts 17 records:
And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea; who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so. Therefore many of them believedActs 17: 10-12
It is very interesting that the Bereans used the scriptures they had to determine if the new message of Christ was true. They didn’t accept it outright because Paul said so, and they didn’t reject it just because it was different than they were taught. They searched the scriptures to see if it had any merit. Acts 17 says that many of them believed and were converted. This is the ideal pattern for us today. If someone teaches something, then we should also search the scriptures to determine if it is true. However, sadly most people instantly reject the message simply because it is different than they were taught.
A last example to consider is found in 2 Nephi 32. In this chapter Nephi is giving his final testimony to his people and describing everything that he wanted to instill to his posterity. In fact, the last 3 chapters of 2 Nephi are an excellent summation of everything that Nephi thought was important, which includes the simple doctrine of Christ. Starting in 2 Nephi 32, Nephi described how important the word of God is to his posterity. He mentioned:
Feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.2 Nephi 32:3
The words of God are so important that we should be feasting on them. If we do then, according to Nephi, they will tell us all things that we should do. This is an amazing statement and promise to us. Nephi, who was a great prophet, was not saying listen to him and his amazing teachings. He was not saying be more like him because he made so many good choices. Nephi was saying that we all must feast on the words of Christ, found in the scriptures, and be like him. They are what are going to guide us in our life not the words or teachings of the current leader.
It is vitally important to us today that we elevate the scriptures back to the prominence they once held. Of course, many would say that the scriptures continue to hold prominence. However, if we believe the current leaders of the church can say or do whatever they want, even if it violates scriptures then the statement is not true.
The iron rod is the word of God not the words of men mingled with scriptures. The word of God today is manifest to us through the scriptures. It is also very important to realize that the scriptures are just one very small portion of all the knowledge God has to give us. More scripture will come forth however it will act to further testify of the truthfulness of the scriptures we already have.
We must constantly delight in the word of God and make it a part of us as we progress back to God. God was very clear in 2 Nephi 29 that he has a lot more to give us, but we must cherish what he has already given us before we can get more. He mentioned:
Wherefore murmur ye, because that ye shall receive more of my word? … And because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another; for my work is not yet finished; neither shall it be until the end of man, neither from that time henceforth and forever.2 Nephi 29:8-9
When we finally become God’s people again then we can receive pure truth from him directly. Until that time, we can rely on the iron rod, which is the scriptures, and if we do then we “[will] never perish“.