3 Nephi 12-16 – The Sermon on the Mount in America

Introduction

These chapters cover Christ’s teaching immediately after his arrival to America after his resurrection. In chapter 11, he allows each of those who happened to be at the Bountiful temple to touch his wounds, he calls twelve among them to lead, and then he provides a brief introduction for what is about to come next. I consider this text the absolute core of Christianity, from which the Book of Mormon provides a direct second witness as the Christ’s sermon on the mount gets repeated a second time.

3 Nephi 12

Jesus works through people, so we need to “give heed” to them to indicate a recognition that Christ speaks to us through human conduits. First to those with authority, the twelve that were called, 3 Nephi 12:1, but also to anyone else who happen to be Christ’s witnesses, both directly and indirectly, 3 Nephi 12:2. The sign that indicates this belief is a willingness to “come down into the depths of humility” and be baptized from which comes the Holy Ghost and “a remission of sins”.

Christ then jumps into the beatitudes, from which Christ connects specific blessings to spiritual gifts of the heart in ways that seem somewhat disconnected. The poor in spirit receive the kingdom of heaven. Those that mourn receive comfort as a blessing. The meek inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are filled with God’s Spirit. The merciful receive mercy. The peacemakers are called the children of God. These are the same behaviors Christ showed and it’s through these attributes we draw strength.

It’s clear that Christ works through those who have these attributes to bless the whole earth. At least it becomes clear in verse 13-16 comparing Christ’s followers to the salt of the earth giving the world its flavor, or commanding Christians to be lights to the world.

Jesus concludes this chapter by talking in specifics how Christ has come to fulfill the law of Moses. What’s required now is a “broken heart and a contrite spirit” and a directive to “come unto Christ”. What does that mean specifically? It means, not only don’t you take another person’s life, you avoid anger, nor can we come to Christ until we’ve reconciled our broken relationships (12:23, 24). More than that, reconcile disagreements quickly.

Not only shouldn’t we cheat on our spouse, we should avoid lustful desires from entering our hearts at all. We should cherish our marriage relationships and work desperately to make them solid. Our communications should be filled with goodness and integrity. Others should trust us. We should follow through.

The climax of the chapter sums it all up, that we should love our enemies, “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you” (3 Nephi 12:43).

3 Nephi 13

Jesus continues the sermon in this chapter imploring the people to give to others with sincere, authentic attempt without ulterior or selfish motives. He describes the manner of prayer, to do it in secret, without vain repetitions, with reverence, a willingness to yield to God’s will, a desire to forgive and repent, a plea for strength against temptation, and a recognition of our desire to seek God’s kingdom (3 Nephi 13:1-13). Jesus describes the proper way to fast, implores the people to seek for heavenly and not earthly riches, and to keep our eye single so that our whole body can be full of light.

The final passage of this chapter makes an interesting distinction. Those who are called should be fully focused on the ministry without concern for food, clothing and shelter. This is a directive to the twelve which I think means that most of us should be concerned with these because I think working hard is also a spiritual practice in itself.

3 Nephi 14

This sermon is rapid fire. First he implores the people not to judge unrighteously. He tells the people to hold precious that which is precious, “do not give pearls to swine” but then gives hope. It’s ok to ask questions, to seek, to knock and that as we spend our lives doing so, answers will come. Christ talks about the strait gate and the narrow way that we all must walk through to find Christ. He warns of false prophets and how to detect them.

3 Nephi 15, 16

These last two chapters mark an interesting shift. Here Jesus digs in about his global concerns, that he is concerned with all people, “that other sheep I have which are not of this fold, and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (3 Nephi 15:17). And that “it is because of their iniquity that they know not of you” or “that they now not of them” (3 Nephi 15: 19, 20). These passages seem to indicate that we should really know about other nations and cultures and what they can teach us as well as what we might teach them, such that we can ultimately become one fold and one shepherd.

Chapter 16 concludes with a summary of earth’s history and destination, that it would be one of scattering of God’s people throughout the earth because of unbelief and God’s effort to gather them again which is the core point of the restoration, that “God will remember my covenant unto you, O house of Israel, and ye shall come unto the knowledge of the fulness of my gospel”. (3 Nephi 16:11). He concludes by quoting Isaiah’s prohecy of zion, “when the Lord shall bring again Zion”… “and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God.” 3 Nephi 16:18-20.

3 Nephi 1-7

3 Nephi 1 – The Sign of His Birth

Helaman ends with the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite, prophecies that had unprecedented specificity, laying out the precise timelines for Christ’s coming and how they would know of his birth based on a night that doesn’t grow dark. Somehow, Samuel and his prophecies have a surprisingly harsh and divisive affect on the people. Perhaps, the trigger is that Samuel an outsider, comes into Nephite lands, calls them to repentance, seemingly without any authority and then some number of them actually believe in these prophecies? For some reason this is all too much for them to bear, so the non-believers set a day apart that “they should be put to death except the sign should come to pass.” (3 Nephi 1:9).

Nephi, the prophet and spiritual leader, prays for his people, “all that day” (verse 12). His prayer is answered remarkably by Jesus himself, who declares that on that very night “shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world.” I imagine the mother Mary and her husband Joseph large with child. And using a science I can only imagine, this very Jesus has the ability to answer Nephi’s prayer directly, while his body remains in the womb. “on the morrow come I into the world”.

The sign appears, destructive plans are thwarted, causing an almost universal shock so extreme that people en-masse fall to the earth, a response that mirrors Alma the younger or King Lamoni’s conversion. When your narratives are shown to be false with incontrovertible evidence, the shock and pain can almost be too much. Hard hearts need to be softened and making hard things soft can sometimes be painful. But still people struggle with their narratives, verse 22 describes how “lyings sent forth among the people, by Satan, to harden their hearts, to the intent that they might not believe in those signs and wonders which they had seen;” Nonetheless, many hearts were softened and many believe and were converted and baptized.

Despite this remarkable sign, the resulting peace proves temporary, only a couple of years later, the Gadianton robbers, held up in the mountains this entire time, grow in their ranks. What conversion appeal they had on the people, the text does not say. Dissension is especially acute in the rising generation possibly not aware of Samuel’s prophecies and less impressed by the earlier heavenly sign. Somehow the verse connects Zoramite philosophy with the Gadianton band and those words are convincing casuing many dissent.

3 Nephi 2 – Disbelief and War

A big part of their unbelief is not only the temporal distance away from signs but also simple callousness. The people began to be “less and less astonished at a sign or a wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts.” And the people did persist in their wickedness, despite “the much preaching and prophesying which was sent among them”. As the numbers increased for the Gadianton robbers, their power to inflict real pain on those in the cities increased as well. The robbers “did slay so many of the people, and did lay waste so many cities, and did spread so much death and carnage” that the Nephites and Lamanites joined forces to try to beat down the Gadianton robbers. Their common enemy united them at last.

Chapter two ends with this reference to the Lamanite “curse” being lifted, noted by their “dark skin”. I find this reference troubling given the long, troubled history of justifying racism by attempting to correlate skin color with righteousness as is done here. The most straight forward interpretation of this passage is incredibly problematic and should be rejected and the Book of Mormon gives us a number of ways to do so without rejecting the entire text. The reader can take a more apologists route and try to find alternative interpretation – that it’s not literally talking about skin color. You can accept the Book of Mormon’s own admission that if there are mistakes in this record they are the mistakes of the human beings authoring it and assume this is one of those human mistakes, or you can accept translation, even revelatory translation that came through Joseph Smith can never be perfect and that Joseph Smith through the imperfection of language injected some 1800’s racism into the text. It’s impossible to say with certain which of these interpretations is most correct, but I can say with certainty, righteousness and skin color are absolutely not and never have been correlated.

3 Nephi 3 – The Motivations and Ideas Behind the Gadiantons as noted in the letters exchanged

Analyzing the letter quoted in this chapter by Giddianhi, the leader of the Gadiantons provide some clues to their philosophy and motivations, notably at the very end, “that this my people may recover their rights and government, who have dissented away from you because of your wickedness in retaining from them their rights of government,…”

The Book of Mormon doesn’t spend a lot of time on details or backstories, but one common strand of difference is that righteous leaders who obtain power, at times voluntarily yield it, but hold it as a way to serve and benefit those they lead whereas wicked leaders who seek for power as if they are entitled to it, that it’s their right, and any action is justified in obtaining it.

Another idea to note is the transition into righteousness by the united Lamanite and Nephite people. I think a lot of it had to do with the righteousness of their leaders in verse 12, “Now behold, this Lachoneus, the governor, was a just man, and could not be frightened by the demands and the threatenings of a robber; therefore he did not hearken to the epistle of Giddianhi.”

Lachoneus is righteous but he also appoints righteous military leaders to lead them, who would rather orient themselves in a defensive posture rather than to pursue the robbers in the mountains, verse 21, “The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and we will not go against them, but we will wait till they shall come against us…”

3 Nephi 4 – Robbers Cannot Subsist without Something to Plunder

The Nephites and Lamanites prepared themselves at the center of their civilization with seven years of provisions. The Gaddianton robbers came down without scouting it out in a rush, confident in their “unconquerable spirit” only to find much of the land deserted. The robbers did not want land, they wanted the civilization. To plunder they needed a vulnerable population that was plunderable.

Their only choice was to take on the people in battle. They did and were slaughtered as a result. Verse 10, “But in this thing they were disappointed, for the Nephites did not fear them; but they did fear God and did suppliate him for protection; therefore when the armies of Giddianhi did rush upon them they were prepared to meet them; yea, in the strength of the Lord did they receive them.”

This chapter describes two attempts at Gadianton subjugation, the first was open confrontation, the second was a siege. Both attempts fail. In the end, their suffering drew them in to repentance, drew them into a united defense and gave them the strength and wisdom to eliminate the Gandianton threat, verse 33, “And their hearts were swollen with joy, unto the gushing out of many tears, because of the great goodness of God in delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; and they knew it was because of their repentance and their humility that they had been delivered from an everlasting destruction.”

3 Nephi 5 – A Moment of Mormon Commentary

With the victory over an incredibly ominous threat complete, Nephite society enters a time of peace, prosperity, and righteousness. Verse 3, “Therefore they did forsake all their sins, and their abominations, and their whoredoms, and did serve God with all diligence day and night.” In this chapter, Mormon takes a step out of the narrative and perhaps filled with gratitude and the love of God, explains his role in composing this history, declaring his hope for his descendants in verse 26, “And then shall they know their Redeemer, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of god; and then shall they be gathered in from the four quarters of the earth unto their own lands…”

3 Nephi 6 – A Descent into Inequality

3 Nephi 8-11 – Christ in America – In Extreme

3 Nephi 8

In verse one, Mormon is careful to lay out before he gets into it, the credentials of the author of the record from which he uses as the source of his summary. Presumably the record had been kept by Nephi, who in chapter 7 certainly qualifies as someone “who could do a miracle in the name of Jesus” (verse 1) That credential was enough, he could presume of Nephi’s integrity and purity and that he would have the wisdom and insight to interpret current events with insight and truth.

The people begin to look for the signs of Jesus’ death just like they had done for his birth. It seems they were expecting a day without light as a compliment to the sign of his birth, being a night without darkness. Samual also prophesied destruction and calamity, something I expect, they hoped to avoid or at least survive.

In verse 5, the calamity begins, “there arose a great storm, such an one as never have been known in all the land.” He continues in the record to describe the destructions and the general destruction of vast populations – by drownings, fire, earthquake and tempests. The storms and earthquakes spanned the land and lasted for a solid three hours (verse 19) followed by complete darkness, described as a vapor (verse 20), such that the sun, the moon and all of the stars in the sky were completely blotted out. The people could not even light a fire. How difficult to endure and survive a three hour, multi-dimensional destruction, in which the natural world seemed to come at this civilization from multiple directions only to end it in complete darkness lasting for three days.

The people quickly connected this destruction to their own sins, crying with painful regret, “‘O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and then would our brethren have been spared, and they would not have been burned in that great city Zarahemla.'” verse 24.

3 Nephi 9

And then in chapter 9, a voice is heard who takes full credit for the destruction and calamity, “Behold that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire” (verse 3), “And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea” (verse 4), “that great city Moronihah have I covered with earth… to hide their iniquities and their abominations from before my face” (verse 5). This continues through 7 more verses, spanning 13 additional named cities but concluding with “and many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people, because of their wickedness and abominations.”

Then in verse 13, the voice describes those who survived as those who were “more righteous than they” but still in need of deep repentance. And then in verse 15, the kicker, the voice names himself, Jesus Christ, who “created the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are.” He announces the fulfillment of scripture, the fulfillment of the law of Moses, an announcement that burnt offerings are unnecessary anymore, that all that’s required is a “broken heart and contrite spirit”.

3 Nephi 10

After the words of Christ cease, there is silence for many hours. And then the voice comes again, “how oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings and have nourished you.” (verse 4) Jesus here reminds the people of his continual mercy and of the deep regret that despite that mercy, the people “would not” (verse 5).

This signal of gentle rebuke and a reminder of opportunities lost send the people back into a spiral, “they began to weep and howl again because of the loss of their kindred and friends.” (verse 8). And as often happens after a period of deep mourning and loss, the light eventually returns and life begins anew.

Mormon pauses the story to remind the reader that that all of these events have been prophesied, that those who were spared were more righteous, those who had not slain the prophets or killed the saints. And that these who were spared were about to experience “great blessings poured out upon their heads.” (verse 18)

3 Nephi 11

I’ve personally read chapter 11 multiple times. On my mission, we assigned this chapter as one of the first to be read by someone investigating the church and would read it with them when they inevitably wouldn’t. We felt this chapter of any in the Book of Mormon had the convincing, conversion power.

The chapter begins in Bountiful. A lot of people had gathered at the temple to talk about the remarkable events they just survived – the destruction and its consequences, the fulfillment of Samuel’s prophecies and the voice of Christ. In verse 3, they heard the voice again, but this time, rather than something from an unknown source that could be heard by all, it was a voice that “came out of heaven”, verse 3, and at first they could not understand it because “notwithstanding it being a small voice it did pierce them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.” (verse 3).

Only after they did “open their ears” and “look steadfastly towards the heaven” were they able to hear the voice. This time the voice wasn’t Jesus, but it was presumably the father (although it could have been his mother) introducing Jesus who was in process of descending out of heaven into their midst. From here, Jesus announces himself and lets the multitude feel his wounds.

Next, Jesus calls forth Nephi and others to give them power and instructions on baptism. The first order of business is to organize his church anew. The next order of business is to distill the doctrine of Christ down to the core fundamentals, that the doctrine isn’t about disagreement or disputations, but it’s about unifying across tribes and disagreements – that all people everywhere should repent and believe in Christ. And after belief, turn that into covenant through baptism. This is the doctrine. That’s it. Building our lives on that central tenant is like building your house on a rock. And in way that seems to echo the physical storms these people just passed through, building our lives upon the gospel of faith, repentance and covenant is to have a life that can withstand the storms.

Conclusions

These set of chapters are really challenging. What to make of this massive, apparently willful destruction of the wicked but presumably not just the wicked because many of “our fair daughters, and our children” would “not have been buried up in that great city Moronihah” (3 Nephi 8:25). It’s hard to imagine a precise destruction sparing just those more righteous.

That’s not my sense of how the world works. My only good way through these chapters is to think of this more as attribution where attribution is not warranted. In many ways, however, our connection to the earth is directly related to our righteousness in ways that don’t contradict natural law. Not being in-tune with nature, leads to all sorts of bad outcomes. Being out-of-tune with our surroundings is one fundamental way we sin. Sin is isolating, distracting, self aggrandizing, leads us into complacency, pride, and arrogance.

Righteousness recognizes how our behavior affects the world. Righteous people are sensitive to human activity that pollutes the world and then through inspiration works toward solutions. I think there are parallels here with our terrible pandemic response, our failure to manage our forests leading to horrific fires, our unwillingness to pivot away from carbon energy leading to global warming and the resulting disasters that has caused. God wasn’t directly responsible. We were. Then and now.