3 Nephi 28
3 Nephi 28:1
1 And it came to pass when Jesus had said these words, he spake unto his disciples, one by one, saying unto them: What is it that ye desire of me, after that I am gone to the Father?
“These words” are the charge of judgment given the twelve. After giving them an eternal responsibility, the Lord now offers them a blessing. This chapter focuses on the blessing given to three of the twelve to tarry on earth until the Lord should come. Structurally this is the blessing that accompanies the responsibility given at the end of 3 Nephi 27.
3 Nephi 28:2
2 And they all spake, save it were three, saying: We desire that after we have lived unto the age of man, that our ministry, wherein thou hast called us, may have an end, that we may speedily come unto thee in thy kingdom.
3 Nephi 28:3
3 And he said unto them: Blessed are ye because ye desired this thing of me; therefore, after that ye are seventy and two years old ye shall come unto me in my kingdom; and with me ye shall find rest.
The offer that is given to the twelve is understood as a personal reward. This contrasts to the previous question asked of the Savior at what appears to have been the beginning of this visit with the twelve:
We do not know how it is that “What will ye that I shall give unto you?” was a question that elicited a discourse on the name of the church, but “What is it that ye desire of me” should elicit a personal request. Clearly this was the intent of the Lord, that they should receive some desired blessing for their service.
All but three of the twelve desire to come speedily to the kingdom of God after their work on earth is done. This is a righteous desire, for they believe in the promise of the kingdom and were willing to do their work before they received their reward.
That the Savior should mark their time on the earth as “seventy and two years” is curious. The number appears this way in counts of the tribes carried into Babylonian captivity, but only for two of the tribes (see Ezra 7:3-4; Nehemiah 7:8-9), but this does not appear to have any particular meaning that influences the number we see in this text. It is possible that the number is an extrapolation of three days (72 hours) into a figure of a “perfect” time related to the number 3 as a representation of the Godhead. This would be a number that would be significant to a Christian community after understanding the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, which was apparently part of the information communicated or understood as part of the visits of the Savior to the New World. Three would not have been a Mesoamerican number. For a Mesoamerican culture outside of the Christian influence, we would have expected a number that was either built on base 20, or in multiples of 4. This number would be significant in the Christian context, however, based upon the three members of the Godhead.
3 Nephi 28:4
4 And when he had spoken unto them, he turned himself unto the three, and said unto them: What will ye that I should do unto you, when I am gone unto the Father?
3 Nephi 28:5
5 And they sorrowed in their hearts, for they durst not speak unto him the thing which they desired.
This is a fascinating picture into the hearts of the three. They were desiring a righteous desire, but in comparison to the desire of their fellows to speedily come to the Messiah, it probably felt that they wanted to dawdle in their coming to the Messiah. They have sorrow in their hearts because of self-doubt, and increased no doubt by that too-human tendency to compare ourselves to others and assume that we fall short of the good that we see others do.
3 Nephi 28:6
6 And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me.
3 Nephi 28:7
7 Therefore, more blessed are ye, for ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven.
Jesus sees into their hearts and knows their desires. In contrast to their sorrowing because of the comparison to the other nine, Jesus declares them “more blessed,” and compares them not to the other nine, but to John the beloved of the Old World. The Lord understood not only the desire, but the comparison. He therefore gives them a comparison that places their desire in the proper context. They have desired the same that one whom the Lord called beloved had desired. Therefore, they could understand that this was a righteous desire.
The New Testament reference we have for this incident with John the beloved is somewhat cryptic:
20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?
21 Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?
22 Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.
23 Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?
There is no clear statement of what happened to John as there is for these three disciples. In the New Testament we have only the statement of the Savior that comes in response to Peter’s question. Peter’s question follows a discussion of Peter’s death, which will be a martyr’s death. Perhaps Peter’s question is simply one of curiosity, but it may be that Peter exhibited the same human trait of comparison as we see in these three, who compare themselves to the other nine. In that context of comparison the Savior notes that John will “tarry till come.” The nature of John’s choice is more clearly explained in the Doctrine and Covenants where this New Testament passage receives a more full context:
Doctrine and Covenants 7:1-8
1 And the Lord said unto me: John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you.
2 And I said unto him: Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.
3 And the Lord said unto me: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people.
4 And for this cause the Lord said unto Peter: If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? For he desired of me that he might bring souls unto me, but thou desiredst that thou mightest speedily come unto me in my kingdom.
5 I say unto thee, Peter, this was a good desire; but my beloved has desired that he might do more, or a greater work yet among men than what he has before done.
6 Yea, he has undertaken a greater work; therefore I will make him as flaming fire and a ministering angel; he shall minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation who dwell on the earth.
7 And I will make thee to minister for him and for thy brother James; and unto you three I will give this power and the keys of this ministry until I come.
8 Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.
The passage in the New Testament led to the development of a legend that became quite widespread, and has become known as the tale of the “wandering Jew.”
"The Wandering Jew." The first mention of the legend of the Jew condemned to wander till the day of judgment for offering insult to Christ on the way to Calvary is ascribed to Matthew of Paris, who professes to have received the fable from an Armenian Bishop in 1228. The Jew, was, it is stated, a doorkeeper in the palace of Pontius Pilate. In 1547 he turned up at Hamburg, giving his name as Ahasuerus, and declaring that he had been a shoemaker in Jerusalem, and had refused to allow Jesus to rest at his door when he passed it bearing the cross. He struck Jesus who replied. 'I will stand here and rest, but thou shalt go on until the last day.' The 'Wandering Jew' subsequently visited Brussels as Isaac Lacquedom, and also Leipzig, Lubeck, Moscow, Madrid, and Hull." (Nelson's Encyclopedia) Based on this legend several novels have been written portraying the wanderings of this accursed man. George Croly's work, first published in 1827, and recently republished with the title, "Tarry Thou Till I Come," Lew Wallace's "Prince of India," and "The Wandering Jew," by the French author Eugene Sue, are outstanding novels dealing with this legend.
It is very likely that the legend had its beginning in some early period of our era, and was the outgrowth of the words of our Lord to Peter in relation to John. The story, of course, became perverted, and was made to apply to some one blessed that he might do good until the coming of Christ in glory. The Savior said in giving instruction to his disciples in relation to his coming in the clouds of glory; "There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." This saying has been quite generally a mystery to Christian people and it has been interpreted to mean that Christ has always come in glory in the hearts of those who are converted.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 1: 43 - 44.)
Obviously there is a significant difference in the tale that became popular and the fate of either John or the three Nephites. The Wandering Jew is condemned, and his longevity is a punishment. For John and the three Nephites, theirs is a righteous desire. For at least these three Nephites, it was something for which they were “more blessed.” Perhaps ironically, or simply because we humans are the story-tellers we are, the three Nephites have become the focus of their own collection of tales that are told of miraculous assistance for the righteous needy.
This commentary is not the place to discuss the cycle of stories that have become associated with the three Nephites, but because of their popularity, a couple of references are appropriate.
“The basic structure of these stories seems to be this: someone has a problem; a stranger appears; the stranger solves the problem; the stranger miraculously disappears. A story may have more to it than this, but it must have these features. Any account that is taken into the Nephite cycle will be adjusted (probably unconsciously) to fit the pattern. The remarkable disappearance is particularly interesting. I see no compelling reasons why the Nephites must disappear. In Book of Mormon times they were thrown into prison, dens of wild beasts, and into furnaces, and in none of these instances did they solve their problems by disappearing. But in the modern stories, they vanish from the back seats of speeding cars; they vaporize before one's eyes; or they walk away and someone later tracing their footsteps in the snow finds that they abruptly end. The Nephites disappear, I believe, because the story requires it. The disappearance is the climax toward which the narrative builds, overshadowing in many instances the kindly deeds the Nephites came to perform in the first place. (“The Paradox of Mormon Folklore” by William A. Wilson, BYU Studies, vol. 17 (1976-1977), Number 1 - Autumn 1976 42.)
The stories that circulate in Mormon circles that related to the three Nephites all tend to be told in the same form. Indeed, when the tale is told in this form, it is understood to involve the three Nephites, and one need not even explicitly link it to them for us to understand that there is a connection.
It is important in this context to understand how folklore, such as the lore of the three Nephites, might relate to history, and in this case, the sacred history in the Book of Mormon. Wilson answers this question:
“To suggest that folklore is literature is to suggest that it is fiction; to suggest that it is fiction is to suggest also that it is not true, that it does not recount history accurately. This suggestion will not trouble many when we apply it to folksongs or to humorous anecdotes, which we really don't consider factual; but when we apply it to stories of the Three Nephites or to accounts of visits to or from the spirit world or to divine help in genealogical research, then eyebrows arch all over the place. And this brings me once again to my colleague's question: "If we have three oral accounts of something Joseph Smith did, does that mean it's folklore?"
The answer to that question depends on the antecedent of the pronoun it. If the pronoun refers to the actual event that started the stories, the answer is clearly no. The event is whatever the event was, and the folklorist will leave to the historian the task of deciphering it. But if the pronoun refers not to the event but to the account of it circulating orally, the answer is yes. The account is, or is on the way to becoming, folklore.” (The Paradox of Mormon Folklore Fn by William A. Wilson Fn, BYU Studies, vol. 17 (1976-1977), Number 1 - Autumn 1976 41.)
It is important to remember, therefore, that while there is certainly folklore concerning the three Nephites, that does not mean that the three Nephites are folklore.
3 Nephi 28:8
8 And ye shall never endure the pains of death; but when I shall come in my glory ye shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality; and then shall ye be blessed in the kingdom of my Father.
The Book of Mormon text preserves more information about the process surrounding this remarkable ability to tarry until the Savior comes. For these men, there will be no death as the rest of us experience. Their ultimate transition from earthly to heavenly, from mortality to immortality, will be “in the twinkling of an eye.” This phrase itself comes from the New Testament context of a change from mortal to immortal at the last days:
1 Corinthians 15:52
52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
While the New Testament phrase refers to raising the dead, the same speed of transformation will happen to the three without the intervening step of death. At that point, they shall also receive the blessing that the other nine had wished, to come into the kingdom of the Father.
3 Nephi 28:9
9 And again, ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world; and all this will I do because of the thing which ye have desired of me, for ye have desired that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand.
3 Nephi 28:10
10 And for this cause ye shall have fulness of joy; and ye shall sit down in the kingdom of my Father; yea, your joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father; and the Father and I are one;
These two verses play on the contrast between sorrow and joy. Even though the language of verse 9 indicates the absence of physical sorrow, nevertheless there will be sorrow in this mortality “for the sins of the world.” This sorrow in the world is then contrasted with the “fullness of joy…in the kingdom of my Father.”
The Savior had told the Nephite multitude “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect. (3 Nephi 12:48.)” That command was to continue on the process of perfection until they reached that state (see the commentary following that verse). For the three Nephites, they are promised that the result of this process is that they will achieve this result, and that they will become as the Father and Son are. This is the state of perfection or Godhood.
“The Latter-day Saint view of man's potential is in the vanguard of religious or scientific thought. Before the gospel was restored, no one was heard to say, "As God is, man may become," and yet Jesus said, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48.) Does not that injunction imply limitless possibilities? And the Apostle John said, "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but this we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." (John 2:2.)” (Hugh B. Brown, Continuing the Quest [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1961], 202 - 203.)
3 Nephi 28:11
11 And the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and the Father giveth the Holy Ghost unto the children of men, because of me.
The addition of this phrase appears to be influenced by the New Testament passage that joins the unity of the Father and Son with the Holy Ghost as the one to bear record of the divinity of the Father:
1 John 5:7
7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
The alteration in the 3 Nephi context is that the Holy Ghost is given as the witness of the Father and the Son, rather than a triune witness indicated in 1 John.
3 Nephi 28:12
12 And it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words, he touched every one of them with his finger save it were the three who were to tarry, and then he departed.
The process of the change comes with the touching of the three. In that moment there is a physical transformation that accompanies the promised change. The change is triggered by the touch. This continues the principle that ordinances occur by the laying on of hands, or the direct physical contact between the person administering and the one administered to.
3 Nephi 28:13
13 And behold, the heavens were opened, and they were caught up into heaven, and saw and heard unspeakable things.
3 Nephi 28:14
14 And it was forbidden them that they should utter; neither was it given unto them power that they could utter the things which they saw and heard;
3 Nephi 28:15
15 And whether they were in the body or out of the body, they could not tell; for it did seem unto them like a transfiguration of them, that they were changed from this body of flesh into an immortal state, that they could behold the things of God.
As part of the transformation, the three are caught up into heaven. This may have been a revelation given to them to help them understand the complete nature of their long ministry on the earth. There is no explanation as to why this heavenly experience was given to the three but not the other nine.
The emphasis in verse 15 is on the concept of transfiguration. At least the concept of transfiguration comes from the language describing the experience of the Savior in his mortal ministry:
2 And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.
3 And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.
The transfiguration of Jesus was a change that altered the way he appeared, and that appearance was from mortal into a being of light. This is the imagery of the shining raiment, and common description of heavenly beings and messengers.
The need for a transfiguration of some sort to “behold the things of God” comes from the Old Testament passage:
20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.
That which is mortal and unprotected cannot withstand the presence of God, or the “things” of God, and therefore the human must undergo some type of transfiguration to be able to survive that experience. In the case of the three Nephites, that transfiguration became permanent in some form so that their moral body was no longer subject to the pangs of mortality.
Reference: The language describing this experience is borrowed from Paul:
2 Corinthians 12:2-4
2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)
4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.
The similarity of experience is certain. The process of being “caught up” in some form to heaven and experiencing that realm would certainly lead to ineffable experience. What happened was independent of the New Testament passage, but obviously the language used to describe that similar experience is influenced by the Pauline text.
3 Nephi 28:16
16 But it came to pass that they did again minister upon the face of the earth; nevertheless they did not minister of the things which they had heard and seen, because of the commandment which was given them in heaven.
Even though the three had been caught up into heaven, they did return to earth, and they ministered to the people. Mormon tells us that they did not specifically speak of their experiences during that time when they were caught up.
3 Nephi 28:17
17 And now, whether they were mortal or immortal, from the day of their transfiguration, I know not;
3 Nephi 28:18
18 But this much I know, according to the record which hath been given—they did go forth upon the face of the land, and did minister unto all the people, uniting as many to the church as would believe in their preaching; baptizing them, and as many as were baptized did receive the Holy Ghost.
Textual: Mormon gives us an interesting picture of his relationship with his material. He has written information concerning the three Nephites from the “record which hath been given.” However, that record in and of itself does not say, not give enough information, that Mormon could know “whether they were mortal or immortal.” Mormon understood that they were somehow allowed to remain and minister, but he does not understand the technicalities. Neither did his sources. Even though Mormon is an apostle, he does not have the key to all of knowledge about the history that he is writing.
3 Nephi 28:19
19 And they were cast into prison by them who did not belong to the church. And the prisons could not hold them, for they were rent in twain.
Mormon tells us something of the history of these three Nephites and the power of their faith. This is a history out of chronological order in his text. None of these events happened until much later than the time period Mormon is currently describing. This tells us that at this point in his text, Mormon has inserted this section to tell us about the three Nephites, and not simply to accurately record events. Since the three are more important than the chronology, he can break with strict historical timing and give us a picture of the fate of those three in the four hundred years from the current text-time to Mormon’s time.
It is also highly unlikely that Mormon was alive to see all of these events, though we may expect that they began to occur when the Nephites begin to fall into apostasy some two hundred years in the future. It is possible that some of these events did take place in Mormon’s lifetime, as that was a time of great persecution of the believers.
In all of the events Mormon gives for these three, they overcome humanly impossible situations. That they were able to overcome becomes the de facto demonstration of their faith.
Reference: Alma and Amulek are similarly cast into prison and miraculously delivered by the walls falling down. See Alma 14:27.
Mormon himself makes reference to many of these events in his own eponymous book:
24 And he knoweth their prayers, that they were in behalf of their brethren. And he knoweth their faith, for in his name could they remove mountains; and in his name could they cause the earth to shake; and by the power of his word did they cause prisons to tumble to the earth; yea, even the fiery furnace could not harm them, neither wild beasts nor poisonous serpents, because of the power of his word.
3 Nephi 28:20
20 And they were cast down into the earth; but they did smite the earth with the word of God, insomuch that by his power they were delivered out of the depths of the earth; and therefore they could not dig pits sufficient to hold them.
The three Nephites are cast into pits in the earth. This recalls the treatment of Joseph at the hands of his brothers. See Genesis 37:23-24.
3 Nephi 28:21
21 And thrice they were cast into a furnace and received no harm.
A furnace would simply be a large fire, as there were no furnaces for providing heat to buildings. They were protected from the flames as were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego. See Daniel 3:16-26.
3 Nephi 28:22
22 And twice were they cast into a den of wild beasts; and behold they did play with the beasts as a child with a suckling lamb, and received no harm.
The most dangerous wild beast of Mesoamerica would have been the jaguar. That animal was considered to be a powerful religious omen, and there are cultural reasons that men might have been sacrificed to that particular wild beast.
In the Old World we have Daniel in the lion’s den as one parallel to this miraculous deliverance (Daniel 6:16).
Three of the four deliverances have an analog in the Old Testament. Two of them come from Daniel, which was written after the Lehites left Jerusalem, so the presence of those two deliverances cannot be attributed to typing from the Old Testament by Mormon. We are left with the possibility that Joseph did some typing, or modeling, of his own in the construction of these examples, or the correspondence is simply coincidental. Even though three of the four are analogues for an Old Testament deliverance, those particular events are also at home in a Mesoamerican context, so it is distinctly possible that the correlation is simply coincidental.
3 Nephi 28:23
23 And it came to pass that thus they did go forth among all the people of Nephi, and did preach the gospel of Christ unto all people upon the face of the land; and they were converted unto the Lord, and were united unto the church of Christ, and thus the people of that generation were blessed, according to the word of Jesus.
The conclusion of these miraculous deliverances is not that they were blessed, but that because of that blessing theyh were able to teach. Mormon’s intent is to show us that they taught and were successful in the face of difficulties, not to amaze us with the miracles they performed. For Mormon, the most significant miracle they performed was many were “converted unto the Lord.”
[the people of that generation were blessed]: There have been four generations between the initiation of the story of the three Nephites and Mormon’s text. To which generation is Mormon referring when he says that “the people of that generation were blessed?” Mormon does not tell us, nor does he give any indicators of time at all. Since the difficulties appear to have happened after 200 years have passed away, it is possible that Mormon is referring to the third or fourth “generation.” Perhaps he is referring generically to events in both.
3 Nephi 28:24
24 And now I, Mormon, make an end of speaking concerning these things for a time.
3 Nephi 28:25
25 Behold, I was about to write the names of those who were never to taste of death, but the Lord forbade; therefore I write them not, for they are hid from the world.
3 Nephi 28:26
26 But behold, I have seen them, and they have ministered unto me.
3 Nephi 28:27
27 And behold they will be among the Gentiles, and the Gentiles shall know them not.
3 Nephi 28:28
28 They will also be among the Jews, and the Jews shall know them not.
Mormon tells us that he is ending his discussion of the three Nephites. However, as he ends the discussion he also adds to the discussion.
First he indicates that the three are hidden from the world. They are so well hidden that their names cannot be known. In the context of the whole discussion of naming the church, it is significant that Mormon notes that he cannot write the names of the three. Naming them would give others some power over them, at least to perhaps command their presence.
The following verses play on the hidden/revealed theme. The three Nephites are hidden to the world, but Mormon has seen them. Mormon therefore testifies to their reality, even though they are to be hidden from the world. For both the Gentiles and the Jews equally, these three will continue to be of assistance, and will be “among” those peoples, but will not be recognized.
3 Nephi 28:29
29 And it shall come to pass, when the Lord seeth fit in his wisdom that they shall minister unto all the scattered tribes of Israel, and unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, and shall bring out of them unto Jesus many souls, that their desire may be fulfilled, and also because of the convincing power of God which is in them.
This sentence is complex, and made more complex by the way that it has been punctuated. Simply altering the punctuation can clarify some of the meaning:
And it shall come to pass, (when the Lord seeth fit in his wisdom) that they shall minister unto all the scattered tribes of Israel, and unto all nations, kindreds, tongues and people. And shall bring out of them unto Jesus many souls, that their desire may be fulfilled. And also because of the convincing power of God which is in them.
The remaining difficult clause is “that their desire may be fulfilled.” That phrase could conceivably relate to the desire of those who are brought out of the many nations. It could also refer to the desire of the three. Since the next phrase that begins with “and also” certainly refers to the three, it makes most sense for the “their desire” would also pertain to the three. However, Mormon has not clearly given us the nature of that “desire” in his description. We are left to assume that their desire is to bring souls to the Lord, which would certainly be in character for apostles of the Lord, but is not explicitly stated in Mormon’s relation.
3 Nephi 28:30
30 And they are as the angels of God, and if they shall pray unto the Father in the name of Jesus they can show themselves unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.
Mormon describes the way that they can be hidden from the world and yet be in the world. He does not know the specifics, but suggests that they have been given the same power as angels or heavenly messengers to show themselves “unto whatsoever man it seemeth them good.”
3 Nephi 28:31
31 Therefore, great and marvelous works shall be wrought by them, before the great and coming day when all people must surely stand before the judgment-seat of Christ;
3 Nephi 28:32
32 Yea even among the Gentiles shall there be a great and marvelous work wrought by them, before that judgment day.
Mormon appears to have had some revelation concerning the future efforts of these three, for he mentions that they would happen both before the coming of the Savior, and particularly that they should happen among the Gentiles. That information allows us to place the actions in the last days, and during the time when the Gentiles would have received the gospel. This is the time period that Mormon has been discussing as part of the last days.
3 Nephi 28:33
33 And if ye had all the scriptures which give an account of all the marvelous works of Christ, ye would, according to the words of Christ, know that these things must surely come.
[these things must surely come]: This phrase refers to the events of the coming of the Triumphant Messiah, not the three Nephites. Mormon has shifted his focus from the three Nephites to their role in the events of the end times, and that leads him to exclaim the “marvelous works of Christ” in those last days.
3 Nephi 28:34
34 And wo be unto him that will not hearken unto the words of Jesus, and also to them whom he hath chosen and sent among them; for whoso receiveth not the words of Jesus and the words of those whom he hath sent receiveth not him; and therefore he will not receive them at the last day;
The imagery of receiving is that of hospitality. One receives someone in one’s home. Hospitality indicates that when one is “received” that they are brought among us as family. In this imagery, when Jesus is “received” his person cannot be separated from his message and purpose in the world. Therefore we receive or accept Christ through his words, but as his person and mission. All is bound together. If we do not receive him, then we cannot receive his words, or message, or the benefits of what he has done for us as the Atoning Messiah.
3 Nephi 28:35
35 And it would be better for them if they had not been born. For do ye suppose that ye can get rid of the justice of an offended God, who hath been trampled under feet of men, that thereby salvation might come?
If we have the opportunity to accept the gospel, and we refuse it, we come under condemnation. If we refuse the message, we have refused the gift of the atonement. It cannot fully apply to us if we do not fully accept it.
Reference: The phrase “better for them if they had not been born” is seen in a particular context in both the New Testament and the Doctrine and Covenants.
21 The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! good were it for that man if he had never been born.
Doctrine and Covenants 76:32-33
32 They are they who are the sons of perdition, of whom I say that it had been better for them never to have been born;
33 For they are vessels of wrath, doomed to suffer the wrath of God, with the devil and his angels in eternity;
For both Mark and DC 76, the phrase idea that one would be better never having been born is related to the worst possible scenario. Specifically, it is the sons of perdition in the Doctrine and Covenants, and Judas as betrayer is considered to be one of the sons of perdition. The fate of a son of perdition is to undergo the second death, and to fail to be redeemed at all by Christ’s atonement.
“The atonement of Jesus Christ ransoms and rescues all mankind, without exception, from both deaths brought by the Fall of Adam. This means that every person will die physically and every person will be resurrected physically from the grave and be given everlasting life. In like manner, every person, regardless of worthiness or unworthiness, will also be reclaimed from the spiritual death and will be brought back into the presence of God for the Final Judgment. No matter how wicked or unrepentant, every person will, after the Resurrection, be brought back into the presence of God for judgment. Thus all will be reclaimed from the two deaths that resulted from the fall of Adam. Those who are righteous will remain in his presence. Those who are still unclean and filthy at the time of judgment will be sent away from his presence a second time, and thus they die a second spiritual death. Only the sons of perdition suffer the complete second death. This is clearly detailed by Samuel the Lamanite in Helaman 14:15-18, by Moroni in Mormon 9:12-13, and by the Lord in D&C 29:40-44 and 76:37-38.” (Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Alma, the Testimony of the Word [Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1992], 55.)
It is this context of failure to have the atonement apply that allows us to see the context in which Mormon is using the phrase “it would be better for them if they had not been born.” He does not appear to be specifically discussing the sons of perdition, but rather any who reject the Atoning Messiah. In symbolic terms, they have rejected the Savior by not “receiving” him, and therefore they reject the opportunity to receive the benefits of the Atonement. Certainly anyone who could not have the benefit of the atonement would fit into the category of one who would be better having never been born. Nevertheless, even though the terms are similar, Mormon is certainly not intending to discuss the technical category or sons of perdition.
3 Nephi 28:36
36 And now behold, as I spake concerning those whom the Lord hath chosen, yea, even three who were caught up into the heavens, that I knew not whether they were cleansed from mortality to immortality—
3 Nephi 28:37
37 But behold, since I wrote, I have inquired of the Lord, and he hath made it manifest unto me that there must needs be a change wrought upon their bodies, or else it needs be that they must taste of death;
Textual: Verses 33-36 are the foundation for the next topic that Mormon will discuss, a topic that he picks up again in 3 Nephi 29:1 (although there was no intervening chapter break in Mormon’s plate text). Verse 37 tells us that at this point there was a break in Mormon’s physical process of writing on these plates. The division rather clearly took place between our verses 35 and 36. Mormon had begun telling about the future of the three Nephites, and then moved to his new topic on the last days. Nevertheless, as he continued his pondering during the break he took from writing, it was a topic related to the three Nephites that occupied his mind and his prayers. Therefore when he returns he has new information, and wants to share that information. This becomes the text from here to the end of this chapter. In the next chapter of our current edition, Mormon returns to his discussion of the end times.
Of even more interest than the question and answer is the process. Here is an apostle who has personally met the three Nephites, but has a question about them to which there is no answer in the texts before him. He receives his answer in the same way that we must receive our answers to important questions. He took the question to the Lord, and the Lord gave him the answer. There are times when all of the records of the Nephites did not provide the needed information. There are times for us when all the libraries of man will not hold the specific information we need. There was for Mormon another recourse, and that same recourse is available to us.
3 Nephi 28:38
38 Therefore, that they might not taste of death there was a change wrought upon their bodies, that they might not suffer pain nor sorrow save it were for the sins of the world.
3 Nephi 28:39
39 Now this change was not equal to that which shall take place at the last day; but there was a change wrought upon them, insomuch that Satan could have no power over them, that he could not tempt them; and they were sanctified in the flesh, that they were holy, and that the powers of the earth could not hold them.
The answer to Mormon’s question tells him that there is a change, so that the bodies of the three cannot be considered to be mortal. However, the change is not the same as that which will come in the resurrection. They do not yet have the perfected and resurrected bodies that come after our death. They are “sanctified in the flesh” not resurrected out of it.
3 Nephi 28:40
40 And in this state they were to remain until the judgment day of Christ; and at that day they were to receive a greater change, and to be received into the kingdom of the Father to go no more out, but to dwell with God eternally in the heavens.
Since they have not received the final change of the body that rises in incorruption (1 Corinthians 15:42; 2 Nephi 9).
Textual: There is no chapter break at this point in the 1830 edition.
by Brant Gardner. Copyright 2002