3 Nephi 17
3 Nephi 17:1
1 Behold, now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words he looked round about again on the multitude, and he said unto them: Behold, my time is at hand.
3 Nephi 17:2
2 I perceive that ye are weak, that ye cannot understand all my words which I am commanded of the Father to speak unto you at this time.
As Jesus concludes his private discourse to the twelve he returns his attention the larger group. He addresses them and indicates that “ye are weak.” Their “weakness” is that they “cannot understand all my words.” It probably is not from lack of desire or attempt. It is probable that it is sheer physical weakness, as they have been listening to Jesus for a long time. The experience of his arrival was dramatic, and intense spiritual experiences can be physically enervating. The people are quite simply tired, and the Savior recognizes this.
Translation: Joseph Smith was quite inexpert in the use the Elizabethan forms. In this case, he has Jesus address a multitude with “ye,” which is the second person singular, or the individual “you.” Certainly Jesus was addressing the complete body of people, and not a single person. The translation ought to have been “you are weak” to be grammatically correct. However, Joseph was imitating a form for which he did not understand all of the rules. That he should make such a grammatical error is quite understandable, as most of those who recognize the error in English are those who have become sensitized to this type of form in a different language.
3 Nephi 17:3
3 Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again.
3 Nephi 17:4
4 But now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them.
Jesus declares that he is returning to the Father, and also to “show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel.” This statement must follow from the discussion with the apostles, and suggests that while the information was directed to the twelve, it was in a public place where the population overheard the instructions about the other sheep. Thus this becomes a promise to fulfill yet another promise to yet another people. Given the time logistics, if this were the end of the day and he intended to visit another people, they would necessarily be on the other side of the world where it would be light when it was night among the Nephites. However, this promise to visit the other people was a sacred promise, and not necessarily one that had to be fulfilled that night. It would be fulfilled, in God’s time. For the Nephites it was simply important to understand that Jesus intended to keep that promise to fellow “other sheep.”
3 Nephi 17:5
5 And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them.
As Jesus examines the people he notices that while they are tired, they are not yet ready for him to leave. There is a difference in our ability to comprehend doctrine and our ability to continue to feel the spirit. There are times when our capacities for reason may succumb to the hour, but our soul’s capacity to soak up the spirit is not at all satiated. Such was the situation for these Saints. They had more to learn, but were at a point where more information might be difficult to process. Nevertheless, they could feel the Spirit present with the Savior, and desired that experience to continue.
3 Nephi 17:6
6 And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you.
3 Nephi 17:7
7 Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them, for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy.
3 Nephi 17:8
8 For I perceive that ye desire that I should show unto you what I have done unto your brethren at Jerusalem, for I see that your faith is sufficient that I should heal you.
These Nephites had been awaiting the Atoning Messiah for years, for six hundred years, to be precise. Perhaps they recalled some version of the first Nephi’s vision of the Old World mission of this Atoning Messiah:
1 Nephi 11:31
31 And he spake unto me again, saying: Look! And I looked, and I beheld the Lamb of God going forth among the children of men. And I beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits; and the angel spake and showed all these things unto me. And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God; and the devils and the unclean spirits were cast out.
They had some reference to this vision, or a teaching like it, for the Savior indicated that they desired that he do what he did in Jerusalem. The specific action he performs is healing, and therefore they must have been thinking of the healing rather than one of the other New Testament miracles, such as turning water to wine, or withering the fig tree. The Savior acquiesces to their hearts’ desire, and asks them to bring those who needed healing.
Translation: The specific list of illnesses is influenced more by the Biblical text than the New World. This is particularly obvious for the inclusion of leprosy in the list, as that was not a New World disease, although there were other skin disorders.
3 Nephi 17:9
9 And it came to pass that when he had thus spoken, all the multitude, with one accord, did go forth with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame, and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner; and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him.
3 Nephi 17:10
10 And they did all, both they who had been healed and they who were whole, bow down at his feet, and did worship him; and as many as could come for the multitude did kiss his feet, insomuch that they did bathe his feet with their tears.
The effect of this gift of healing was tremendous. Of course those who were healed were supremely grateful. However, the text rightly notes that even those who did not require healing but were the loved ones of the healed were also moved to worship and tears. Those who care for the ill have almost as much involvement in the illness as the one with the disease. While the burden of disease was lifted from some, from others was lifted the burden of care for the diseased. The release of the concern and worry would have been as much a healing for them. Both worshipped at Jesus’ feet, and tears of joy bathed those feet from countless wondering eyes
3 Nephi 17:11
11 And it came to pass that he commanded that their little children should be brought.
In addition to touching and healing those who were afflicted in the Old World, Jesus was also petitioned to touch the little children:
13 ¶ And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
14 But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
15 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
16 And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
The parents would bring the children to him perhaps as a preventative curing touch. Perhaps it was to simply bring them in contact with one so holy and powerful so that the spirit that obviously accompanied Jesus would beneficially effect the children. In the New World, Jesus initiates this ministry to the children, and asks that they be brought to him.
3 Nephi 17:12
12 So they brought their little children and set them down upon the ground round about him, and Jesus stood in the midst; and the multitude gave way till they had all been brought unto him.
3 Nephi 17:13
13 And it came to pass that when they had all been brought, and Jesus stood in the midst, he commanded the multitude that they should kneel down upon the ground.
As the people bring their children to Jesus they sit them on the ground “round about” him. They are in a rough circular pattern around him. In this size population there would naturally be several children, so there was not a single ring, but a massed ring of children around the Savior.
As he begins, he requests the multitude that they kneel. We do not know if there was a culturally known pattern of kneeling out of reverence, but since we do know that being overcome by the spirit could cause one to fall to the earth (as did the entire congregation after Benjamin’s discourse, Mosiah 4:1) it is probable that the kneeling informed this particular audience that they were about to engage in a particularly spiritual occasion.
3 Nephi 17:14
14 And it came to pass that when they had knelt upon the ground, Jesus groaned within himself, and said: Father, I am troubled because of the wickedness of the people of the house of Israel.
3 Nephi 17:15
15 And when he had said these words, he himself also knelt upon the earth; and behold he prayed unto the Father, and the things which he prayed cannot be written, and the multitude did bear record who heard him.
Jesus begins to pray. All that is recorded of this prayer is that Jesus begins with a personal lamentation for Israel. This concern would have been present on his mind following the topic of discussion with the twelve. What might he have said in this prayer? Of course we cannot know. With this beginning and the connection to the most recent subject, one possibility is that Jesus prayed and disclosed a detailed future history of Israel.
3 Nephi 17:16
16 And after this manner do they bear record: The eye hath never seen, neither hath the ear heard, before, so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father;
3 Nephi 17:17
17 And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard Jesus speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.
Jesus begins by expressing his concern for the House of Israel. The only record of the import of the prayer is that “we heard him pray for us unto the father.” The Nephites knew themselves as a branch of the House of Israel. Their position as part of that covenant people is probably confirmed in this prayer, and the concern over the wickedness of the House of Israel would have been directed at the larger conceptual House that at this body of people who certainly were now the most firm believers in the world, and certainly had already committed in their hearts to fully repent and follow this resurrected man who had come to them, and now suffused them with the spirit.
3 Nephi 17:18
18 And it came to pass that when Jesus had made an end of praying unto the Father, he arose; but so great was the joy of the multitude that they were overcome.
3 Nephi 17:19
19 And it came to pass that Jesus spake unto them, and bade them arise.
At this point Jesus has the adults stand. Of course they might be standing from their kneeling position, but it is more likely that they had fallen to the ground. Verse 18 indicates that “they were overcome,” and that condition in the Book of Mormon indicates that they would have fallen to the ground. Jesus now has them arise, and this would likely be a signal that the subject was changing. The prayer would therefore have been directed to the parents. Now Jesus turns to the children.
3 Nephi 17:20
20 And they arose from the earth, and he said unto them: Blessed are ye because of your faith. And now behold, my joy is full.
Doctrinal: The concept of joy is an important one as it is used in the Book of Mormon. That Jesus should indicate that his “joy is full” is much more significant than simply saying that he was happy. See the commentary following 2 Nephi 2:25.
3 Nephi 17:21
21 And when he had said these words, he wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them.
3 Nephi 17:22
22 And when he had done this he wept again;
Jesus is overcome with emotion as he interacts with the children. Jesus has touched the infirm one by one. Now he touches those who are not infirm, but who are full of promise. He touches those who are innocent. He touches those who certainly believe wholly and unquestioningly. He very literally touches the future.
3 Nephi 17:23
23 And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones.
3 Nephi 17:24
24 And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them.
Jesus had said of the people that they were tired before this experience began. Certainly this experience renewed their spiritual ability to overcome the fatigue of the body. They had seen their God descend to them. Now they see the heavens open and angels descend. This experience, however, they witness as it happens to their children. Although we do not hear anything of it in the Book of Mormon, it is hard to imagine that any of the people present at this time would ever stray from the gospel, but it is even more unlikely that any of these children would stray, based on the transforming nature of this experience. In a future generation, as these children teach their children, it is also quite likely that the power of their parents testimony would still be transmitted to their children. No wonder the gospel becomes the way of life for two hundred years before the power of this experience begins to fade and the Nephites again begin to drift into apostasy.
Referent: The imagery of being surrounded by fire when in such a tremendous spiritual experience no doubt owes much to the description of the day of Pentecost in Acts:
1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.
2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.
3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
3 Nephi 17:25
25 And the multitude did see and hear and bear record; and they know that their record is true for they all of them did see and hear, every man for himself; and they were in number about two thousand and five hundred souls; and they did consist of men, women, and children.
Social: We have a community of approximately two thousand five hundred people, a count that we are told includes men, women, and children. As a rough estimate, we can divide this number by three to gain a rough idea of the number of households represented. This yields a community of approximately 844 households on the upper end. Of course there would have been some households without a husband or wife. There would have been families with no children and those who had more than one. Nevertheless, this gives us a likely high end of the number of households in this particular community. This would make a fairly small community, but it would be a mistake to use this number as representative of the entire community that might define itself as Nephite. These were the people who happened to be in Bountiful, or very close by. There were others who would have been in the fields and who will be gathered for the next experience.
The Nephite government t had dissolved into tribes, but these numbers suggest that at least in Bountiful more than one tribe or kin unit was represented. It would appear that in the aftermath of the destruction the people had begun gathering again, and kin groups who were able to coexist with others began to coalesce. This is yet another reason that this experience took place when Mormon suggested it did, about a year after the tremendous destruction (3 Nephi 10:18). That would give the people enough time to find their ways into cities and associations with other kin groups that would amass a population the size described here. In a typical community, we would expect at least this number of people still in their fields attached to Bountiful, if not more. These are numbers too large for a probable single kin group.
Another reason that this grouping would have taken some time to assemble is that Mormon seems to indicate that it was composed both of those who had previously been Nephites and Lamanites:
3 Nephi 10:18-19
18 And it came to pass that in the ending of the thirty and fourth year, behold, I will show unto you that the people of Nephi who were spared, and also those who had been called Lamanites, who had been spared, did have great favors shown unto them, and great blessings poured out upon their heads, insomuch that soon after the ascension of Christ into heaven he did truly manifest himself unto them—
19 Showing his body unto them, and ministering unto them; and an account of his ministry shall be given hereafter.
While the current text does not specifically note the presence of those who were previously called Lamanites, Mormon clearly indicates that they were present on this occasion when the Savior appeared and showed his body to them. This must be the occasion to which Mormon refers, and therefore we know that this 2500 people include those who were once separated by the designations of Nephite and Lamanite, and are now in the same place. This required relocation also confirms the passage for time between the destruction and this experience.
Literary: This verse is a witness declaration. Nephi begins his writing with just such a declaration of the truthfulness of the record:
1 Nephi 1:3
3 And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge.
What is true about the record? Certainly the experience with the risen Messiah was true. Were all of the events recorded in newspaper fashion? That is most probably not “true.” We do not know when these things were committed to writing. A pragmatic reading of the events of this single recorded day strongly suggest that events from more than one day have been condensed into this account, or else some of the experiences that are indicated as happening to every person occurred to only a few and literary license was taken. The experience recorded in 3 Nephi 11:15 where each person touches the Savior either covered multiple days, or did not actually happen to each individual. With 2500 people, had that single experience been allowed to take twenty four hours, each person would have had thirty four seconds for the experience. In an equatorial country there are only twelve hours of daylight, so having this occur in daylight would cut the experience in half. If each person spent 17 seconds with the Lord, there would have been no time for the Sermon on the Mount, the discourse to the apostles, this great prayer, or the coming establishment of the sacrament. Somewhere in this record there is some alteration of the experience, either in compressing events when they were written, or in exaggerating the participation of all people. Either of these possibilities could explain the chronological “problem” and the record would still be completely true. What is true is the experience, not the details.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2002