Reading Mormon (IV): Prophecies and Ecstasies

Cambridge, MA. This is the fourth of five reflections on 3 Nephi, the book within the Book of Mormon in which Jesus most prominently appears. You can find parts one, two, and three at this site.

     My goal, from the start, has been to show that one can pick up a book of another religious tradition and read it carefully, and draw some meaning from that reading, and that this reading does not require a lifetime of study, such as I have devoted to Hinduism. I expect careful reading, but try not to impose too highly elite standards. These blogs are about careful amateur reading. I don’t mind the range of comments on my previous entries, even those that have been fierce and daunting. I am indeed irenic in my reading, because that is my approach, and also fits with what I have been finding in 3 Nephi. Since over and again I have recommended that readers do their own reading – the text is available in many forms — I am by no means pretending to monopolize how 3 Nephi is to be read. I read with a certain peacefulness, but others can read in the opposite way if they wish: is “polemic” still the opposite of “irenic”? I’ve also rarely responded to the comments that are posted, though I read every one of them. The public exchange does not seem to help, and so I almost always just let the comments speak for themselves. But I do keep getting new ideas on what to read, and while they probably will come too late for me to benefit before writing, next week, the fifth and final of my entries on 3 Nephi, I have ordered the recommended Third Nephi: An Incomparable Scripture, edited by Andrew C. Skinner and Gaye Strathearnh, and also the rather indirectly recommended Tale of Two Cities: A Comparison Between the Mormon and the Catholic Religious Experience (1980) by William Taylor. I hope these books, which the Harvard Library does not own, will arrive soon and fill out my amateur sense of the Book of Mormon and 3 Nephi in particular.


     Back to the text: After the long first sermon that incorporates most of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus departs, and the community dedicates itself to prayer for a time. Jesus returns (3 Nephi 19.15), and commands them to pray all the more intensely, even as he steps aside and prays for them to his Father. The result is a greater intensity in prayer: “And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus prayed unto the Father, he came unto his disciples, and behold, they did still continue, without ceasing, to pray unto him; and they did not multiply many words, for it was given unto them what they should pray, and they were filled with desire. And it came to pass that Jesus blessed them as they did pray unto him; and his countenance did smile upon them, and the light of his countenance did shine upon them, and behold they were as white as the countenance and also the garments of Jesus; and behold the whiteness thereof did exceed all the whiteness, yea, even there could be nothing upon earth so white as the whiteness thereof. And Jesus said unto them: Pray on; nevertheless they did not cease to pray.” (19.24-26) In turn, this prayer is followed by another multiplication – or creation – of bread and wine for a Eucharist, which seems to move the assembly to a kind of ecstasy - as if in the Spirit, though the Spirit seems unmentioned - in the presence of Christ: “Now, when the multitude had all eaten and drunk, behold, they were filled with the Spirit; and they did cry out with one voice, and gave glory to Jesus, whom they both saw and heard.” (20.9)

     At this point, Jesus quotes a number of passages from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament: Isaiah 52, Micah 5, Isaiah 54, and Malachi 3-4. It is not possible or necessary to quote extensively from these texts to get a feel for the teaching communicated here – check your Bible – but two may be of help. Jesus quotes fierce, dire words from Micah 5, on the coming vengeance and fury, including these: “And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strongholds; And I will cut off witchcrafts out of thy land, and thou shalt have no more soothsayers; Thy graven images I will also cut off, and thy standing images out of the midst of thee, and thou shalt no more worship the works of thy hands; And I will pluck up thy groves out of the midst of thee; so will I destroy thy cities. And it shall come to pass that all lyings, and deceivings, and envyings, and strifes, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, shall be done away. For it shall come to pass, saith the Father, that at that day whosoever will not repent and come unto my Beloved Son, them will I cut off from among my people, O house of Israel; And I will execute vengeance and fury upon them, even as upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.” (Micah 5.11-15, as quoted in 3 Nephi 21.15-21).

     He then adds some new words of hope for those who repent: “But if they will repent and hearken unto my words, and harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob, unto whom I have given this land for their inheritance. And they shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the house of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem. And then shall they assist my people that they may be gathered in, who are scattered upon all the face of the land, in unto the New Jerusalem. And then shall the power of heaven come down among them; and I also will be in the midst…” (21.22-25) At the end of Jesus’ quotation of the prophecies, he concludes with Malachi 3-4, the text which stands at the end of the Old Testament, in the Christian ordering of the text, ending with the words: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord; And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Malachi 4.5-6, as cited in 3 Nephi 25.5-6)

     Now it may seem most peculiar to the Christian reader that Jesus is quoting the prophets, and quoting them as predictive of the future, not simply as finished, fulfilled in himself. But in the “ecstatic” context of this second teaching by Jesus in 3 Nephi 19-26, the point seems to be that none of the words of the Bible are merely past; they continue to voice the future, the ups and downs of the human race, the patience and wrath of God with his people, and the never quite extinguished hope for salvation. This reminds me of many a retreat I have been on over the years, and the many more Sunday readings I have heard, in Advent and throughout the year, that use ancient prophecies to illumine our present and our future: the “old words” of scripture are ever new, telling us about where we and our world are going “today.” The old texts, if truly the word of God, are always about the future too. 3 Nephi deflects one criticism – that Jesus is somehow superfluous, as if nothing has changed – by picturing him as speaking the words: all the prophecies are his words, words of the Word. 3 Nephi does not intend to leave Jesus behind.

     3 Nephi 26 brings the second sermon (there is a brief third one, that I will not get into here) to a conclusion with several interesting points. First, there is a powerful confession of the totality of the revelation given by Jesus:  “And he did expound all things, even from the beginning until the time that he should come in his glory — yea, even all things which should come upon the face of the earth, even until the elements should melt with fervent heat, and the earth should be wrapt together as a scroll, and the heavens and the earth should pass away” (26.3) There follows a prediction of a last judgment, but then another confession of how overwhelming the teaching of Jesus is: “And now there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach unto the people.” (26.6) There is a Johannine aura to many of the words of Jesus in 3 Nephi, and these particular protestations seem to echo the end of the Gospel according to John: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:24-25)  Mormon, recording all this, repeats this idea in his own words: “And now there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach unto the people; But behold the plates of Nephi do contain the more part of the things which he taught the people. And these things have I written, which are a lesser part of the things which he taught the people; and I have written them to the intent that they may be brought again unto this people, from the Gentiles, according to the words which Jesus hath spoken…” (26.6-8)

     The chapter ends with the spectacle of the children testifying: “And it came to pass that he did teach and minister unto the children of the multitude of whom hath been spoken, and he did loose their tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things, even greater than he had revealed unto the people; and he loosed their tongues that they could utter.” (26.14) And this in turn seems to echo Jesus’ words in the Gospel: “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself”?’” (Matthew 21.15-16)

     Enough of quotes within quotes in this very long, too long blog. But I hope to have given the willing reader enough to think about, even as you may – as you should – read 3 Nephi yourself and assess what I’ve included and left out. I will offer just a few concluding comments in my next and very last excursion into 3 Nephi, the book that was recently called, as a reader points out, "the Holy of Holies of the Book of Mormon."

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Isabelo Alcordo
6 years 3 months ago
We, the Urantia Book readers, will appreciate very much if the author can also give his evaluation of ''Jesus A New Revelation'' of the Urantia Book. Thanks.

Isabelo S. Alcordo
Phillip C Smith
6 years 3 months ago
Thank you for taking the Book of Mormon seriously and respectfully. I wish more would follow your lead.

Phillip C. Smith
Joel Dickson
6 years 3 months ago
The Book of Third Nephi is why the LDS Church is the only religion I could avidly belong to.  Christians truly believe Christ is the Savior to all the world. Cannot a man who turned water to wine, who made the lame to walk, who made the blind to see, and who raised Lazarus from the dead after four long days not have visited the inhabitants of the American continent?  For a believer, it's not a question of miraculous ability, it's a question of mission and purpose.  What was the mission of Christ?   If one isolates for reflective purposes the mission of Christ; if one strips away everything else but the simplest and most basic purpose of the Saviors life- is what is taught and described in Third Nephi, at odds with it? I would say not. Indeed I would say that it corroborates his central mission.  My estimation is that the mission of Christ was to bring about the resurrection of the dead and to atone for the sins of the entire world. Third Nephi enables me to believe that more profoundly and in a way that promotes my faith in Christ more deeply than does its absence. 


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