5 For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show 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 manifest 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. (2 Nephi 32:5-6)
This is a wonderful example of where questions assist you in understanding something that is not readily apparent from a leisurely reading. Here are some questions:
1. "this is the doctrine of Christ": What is "this"?
2. Who is in the flesh when Christ manifests himself? The subject to whom he manifests himself, or Christ?
3. Nephi says the subject he manifests himself to is "you." Whom is he addressing here?
4. What happens to the doctrine after he "manifests himself to you in the flesh"?
5. Is Nephi talking about Christ's visit to the Nephites in 3rd Nephi?
6. How does Christ "manifest himself unto you in the flesh"?
I think the typical answer to questions 2-6 is that Nephi is telling his posterity that they are to obey the doctrine of Christ until Christ visits them and gives them a new law. Christ did, in fact, visit the Nephites in 3rd Nephi and did just that. However, there are some problems with this interpretation. "The doctrine of Christ," as Nephi defines here and as other prophets and even Christ himself repeat throughout is: to repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Ghost. The law Christ fulfilled and replaced when he visited was the law of Moses---not the doctrine of Christ. Instead of repealing the latter, he actually repeated it to the Nephites. He doesn't actually give any additional doctrine in his visit to the Nephites.
38 And again I say unto you, ye must repent, and be baptized in my name, and become as a little child, or ye can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.
39 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
40 And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation, and the gates of hell stand open to receive such when the floods come and the winds beat upon them. (3 Nephi 11)
This brings us to the question of who "you" is. If Jesus did visit the Nephites and presented something other that the doctrine of Christ to them, we do not have a record of it. This suggests that the "you" is not the Nephites at all, but refers to any individual (or perhaps some other group) who reads Nephi's words. To these individuals, God will give instructions beyond baptism and receipt of the Holy Ghost. In fact, God will give these individuals something beyond the "all things" the Holy Ghost can reveals to them before Christ manifests himself to them in the flesh, according to Nephi.
So what does "manifest unto them in the flesh" actually mean? Does it mean Jesus somehow increases an individual's awareness of himself while the individual is in the flesh? At face value, this interpretation is supported by the use of the same word in a similar context by the same author. Just a few chapters before, Nephi writes,
12 And as I spake concerning the convincing of the Jews, that Jesus is the very Christ, it must needs be that the Gentiles be convinced also that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God;
13 And that he manifesteth himself unto all those who believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders, among the children of men according to their faith. (2 Nephi 26:12-13)
Here Nephi says that Jesus manifests himself to all those who believe in him by the power of the Holy Ghost by virtue of mighty miracles, signs, and wonders (very different from warm and fuzzes, no?). So could it be that in 2 Nephi 32, Nephi is saying that Jesus will increase awareness of himself by virtue of the Holy Ghost through signs and wonders?
I don't think so. There are two problems with that interpretation. First, the definition of manifest. From the 1828 Webster's dictionary:
MAN'IFEST, a. [L. manifestus.]
1. Plain, open, clearly visible to the eye or obvious to the understanding; apparent; not obscure or difficult to be seen or understood. From the testimony, the truth we conceive to be manifest.
So to manifest you need something to be clearly visible to the eye or obvious. In 2 Nephi 26, Nephi explicitly states that the mighty miracles are, in this case, what is clearly visible. However, in 2 Nephi 32, he makes explicit something else that is clearly visible: Jesus himself.
I propose that this passage means precisely what a naive reading of it by a convert would yield: that Nephi is promising us that Jesus can appear to us while we are still alive. In fact, Nephi is not only promising us it can happen, but that it will happen to those who are living righteously, and has to happen if we are to obtain eternal life.
"In the flesh" would make no sense if it referred to the individual: when the entire Book of Mormon is full of examples of mighty miracles being worked by and observed by people "in the flesh," why would Nephi mention it twice in the same brief passage as if it were a special qualification? Also, what difference would it make whether the individual was in the flesh or in the spirit world if we were talking about a manifestation through observation of mighty miracles?
The number of examples we have in the Book of Mormon of righteous individuals obtaining a face to face audience with Christ strengthens this conclusion:
Brother of Jared
...just off the top of my head
I have full confidence that the doctrine of Christ as written by Nephi is still valid today. Not only has God not said anything that I am aware of to reverse it, but I know of several individuals who have met Christ face to face.
Additionally, he has visited me in vision. Some may write this off as a delusion, and I don't blame them. However, if they had experienced what I have, they would not be able to do so without saying the sun doesn't shine while staring at it. Still, I seek him with full heart fully expecting and asking for him to come to me in the flesh. That experience will not expand my testimony of Jesus beyond what it already is---that isn't possible. I saw him and he spoke to me. To call that a mere dream would be like calling a phone conversation with your mother mere static. However, I believe that touching the prints in his hands, feet, and side will enable me to bear a more convincing testimony to others that it is possible to regain his presence in this life, and thus empower them to exercise faith to obtain the experience for themselves.