016: Book of Mormon Lesson 39: 3 Nephi 17-19

These chapters of the Book of Mormon contain some of the most moving and tender moments in all of scripture. Jesus heals the sick, one by one. The crowd weeps with joy. Jesus blesses little children and the scene becomes ineffable. Angels minister to the children and Jesus weeps. All take the sacrament and Jesus teaches about prayer and fellowship. The people work all night to bring even more to the place where Jesus will return. Jesus offers a parallel to his “Intercessory Prayer” of John 16 and prays for oneness and purity, and all are united in this spiritual experience.

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Listen to the engaging class discussion with Debbie, Rolf, and Jason.

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Latest Comments

  1. SteveS says:

    1) Another example of the weeping God in 3 Ne. 17:21-22. This is a striking image that is important to many; indeed some look to this chapter as their favorite in all Mormon scripture. The personal attention given to these 2,500 survivors is touching. Jesus weeps for them (and all of us, really), twice. What are the theological implications of a God who weeps? Is this any different than the time Jesus wept (John 11:35) in the story of the death of Lazarus? What about Moses 7?

    2) 3 Ne. 18: 1: Jesus asks for bread and wine. Would these have been familiar/available to people in ancient Nephite culture? Are these terms simplified “translations” by Joseph Smith for indigenous types of food and drink not familiar to the modern reader? Wouldn’t it have been nice if Jesus had asked for some corn cakes and water (or curelom milk) or something to highlight that it really isn’t the type of food or drink used, but what they point to that matter the most? But on a more serious note, v. 4 says that the disciples were “filled” by the meal of bread and wine, as were the multitude in v. 5. Is this a metaphorical filling, or a complete meal being served and eaten together? The size of the group suggests a metaphorical reading, and this may be another miraculous multiplication of bread reminiscent of the two feeding the multitude miracles in Mark 6:31-44 and Mark 8:1-9. The more I read and contemplate the concept of a share-meal, the more I feel that eating to satiety with a small(er) group of individuals is where the true potential for transformative experience lies. The reduction of the meal to a small piece of bread and a sip of liquid is an accommodation for larger groups, but prevents the intimacy of the smaller group setting for throwing off the economic and social strata that prevent us from truly meeting our fellow human beings authentically. And yet, the institution of this ritual among the Nephites is never contextualized as a share-meal in a smaller group—it is from the start a symbolic ritual act full of meaning, but lacking in some of the key elements of the early Christian share-meals spoken of by Paul, and instituted by Jesus outside Jerusalem at Passover. Thoughts?

    3) The explanations Jesus gives for blessing, breaking, and eating the bread and wine follow very closely the prayer to bless the bread and wine recorded later by Moroni in Moroni 4 and 5. But what of saying set prayers like this? Jesus doesn’t seem to be saying the same exact words in 3 Ne. 18:3-11 as those in the prayers Moroni records; indeed it says he blessed them but doesn’t record the words used, then has Jesus explain why he is doing this breaking and blessing and partaking. Nevertheless, Jesus’ explanation and Moroni’s recorded prayers both hit all the important points: remembrance of body and blood, witness to God that you remember Jesus and are willing to obey commandments of Jesus, and, if you remember you will have Spirit. So why must our sacrament prayers be verbatim? Must all of these points be mentioned in order for the sacramental symbols to take on their symbolic meaning? Is the ritual aspect an essential part of the celebration of the holy meal? What is the relationship of tangible objects, actions, words, and authorizations in making the ordinance of the sacrament meaningful to Mormons and Christians?

    4) Jesus wastes no time getting started organizing his church among the survivors at Bountiful (see 3 Ne. 18:5,16). This church includes baptism, and communal gathering for prayer, remembering what Jesus has done, and for eating the holy meal, and…that’s about it. We could go lots of ways here about the dangers of adding additional elements to the purposes of the Church outlined here, or about the Church’s relationship to the path of personal transformation/salvation (the stuff of the Beatitudes, the Antitheses, and of faith and repentance). But vv. 28-31 seem to introduce an element into the church that complicates things quite a bit: herein the disciples are charged to prevent “unworthy” people from partaking in the holy meal, lest damnation come to these poor peoples’ souls as a result. Now, the authorized servants act as gatekeepers of worthiness between a human and God, withholding symbolic ritual participation from those who would otherwise seek to identify themselves with the body of the church and in the cause of Christ. With this injunction, it seems that instead of the Church existing for the benefit of humans in their personal relationship with deity, humans now must exist for the perpetuation of the Church. Also, the purity of the Church becomes an institutional focus, and has the danger of becoming a replacement for the focus on the purity of God, and our striving for self-improvement. The Church therefore sets the benchmark up to which all adherents must measure, acting in place of God. Doesn’t this directly challenge Jesus’ radical democratization of access to God as found in the New Testament? Or is the Book of Mormon a grand narrative exploration of what God’s church should look like and how it should function, this particular organization of the church by Jesus himself being the perfect, simple form? And yet, as Joseph Smith quickly realizes, a church that focuses solely on baptism and regular worship meetings with prayer and eucharist is bound to find out real quick about the complexities of human organizations as imperfect entities run by petty, imperfect, and striving individuals. Thoughts?

    5) 3 Ne. 19:13: A Nephite day of Pentecost occurs on all who were (re?)baptized, and just like the Pentecost in Palestine, no laying on of hands were required. Instead of “tongues of fire” (c.f. Acts 2: 3), though, something even more dramatic happens: everyone is encircled by fire, and down come the heavenly angelic ministers. Why no priestly intermediary for this outpouring of the Spirit?

    6) 3 Ne. 19:17-18: of course we can’t forget the verses where the disciples pray to Jesus, “calling him their Lord and their God.” This, even though these people, on the day previous, had been taught by Jesus to call upon the Father in the name of the Son (see 3 Ne. 13:9, 18:19-21). Huh?

    7) 3 Ne. 19:17-36 is a reversal of Gethsemane, with a Mount of Transfiguration added on top. This time, the disciples don’t stop praying, and the results are dramatic: Jesus prays many of the same words as in John 17, and as he returns to check back on the disciples and multitude to find them vigilant in prayer (as opposed to asleep like Peter, James and John), these all are made light and white and pure, “even as Jesus” (see. V. 30). So does this story have the same narrative functions as the prayer in Gethsemane and the Mount of Transfiguration? Here the focus is less on Jesus and more on the people. What purposes would this story have served for Nephites and Lamanites who experienced it? What purposes does it serve us now as we read it? Are we to hope to “see” Jesus in this way in our own lifetimes?


  2. Michael VanWagenen says:

    3 Nephi 19:35 states that Jesus taught greater truths and performed greater miracles in America than Jerusalem because the Nephites demonstrated greater faith than the Jews.

    In Jerusalem Jesus came among the people as a man, and (depending on which gospel you’re reading) was very cagy about doing anything to prove he was anything else. In America he destroyed entire cities, rearranged the topography of the continent, covered the land in darkness, spoke to the people out of Heaven, then descended from the sky as a God and healed all their sick while they watched.

    Under the circumstances, is a test of faith really a fair way of determining which group of people should receive greater blessings?


  3. Mike says:

    As to your question (#7) regarding the purpose of the story in 3rd Nephi 19, it seems not that the people were made white/pure, or encircled by fire as much as the twelve. The message seems to be to the people that the 12 are who they are to listen to. Verse 8 indicates that the 12 teach the “same words…nothing varying” and in verses 13-14 the fire encircles the disciples, not the people.

    Jesus prays that the people will believe in “their words” (verse 23), meaning the 12. This chapter seems to be driving home the point that we cannot have access to the Savior by bypassing the Quorum of the Twelve.


    • Jared Anderson says:

      I would gently disagree. I think all of these chapters focus on Jesus’ ministry to each person, and all are purified, all are unified. I don’t think that message of the leaders as unavoidable intermediaries is dominant in these chapters (though Jesus does direct some teachings to them). Besides, that is a pretty scary theology that I don’t think aligns with Mormon teachings (culture, perhaps but that is a different topic).


  4. SteveS says:

    Hey I had another thought, this time about 3 Ne. 18:15. In this verse, Jesus warns us that we are to watch and pray always, lest the devil tempt you and bring you into slavery. I’ve struggled with this verse particularly because it encourages a more literal conception of the devil, and a magical power of prayer to hold the devil at bay. I find that interpretation problematic, particularly how it seems to motivate by fear instead of love.

    And then, I read a commentary somewhere online in preparation for my primary lesson on these chapters that mentioned Jesus in Gethsemane, The scripture in Mark 14:37-38 says: “And he cometh, and findeth them sleeping, and saith unto Peter, Simon, sleepest thou? couldest not thou watch one hour? Watch ye and pray, lest ye enter into temptation….”. The admonishment to watch and pray was in direct relation to the disciples’ failure to watch out for Jesus in his greatest hour of need, a failure to remember him. Narratively, this scene functions to highlight Jesus’ loneliness, being forgotten and betrayed by even those closest to him. The results are dire: Jesus is arrested and crucified.

    In the book of Mormon, Jesus makes the same admonishment directly after introducing the sacrament (similar to the Gethsemane narrative, which directly follows the celebration of the Passover in the upper room, complete with the institution of the bread and wine as symbols of Jesus’ upcoming sacrifice). In 19:16-36, Jesus does a reverse Gethsemane, asking the people to pray while he goes and utters another Gethsemane-style prayer as found in John 17. The people do not fall asleep, however. They vigilantly and obediently pray and are made purer and purer, until they were “white, even as Jesus” (v. 30). And of course, we all know how these people created a true Zion society in the aftermath of Jesus’ visit, which endured for three or four generations.

    So the results of diligent prayerfulness is purification and one-ness with Jesus (a fulfillment of the prayer for oneness just uttered by Jesus. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, as an ordinance of remembrance and recommitting, gives the participants an opportunity to renew their mindfulness of Jesus, and to be transformed by his teachings as participants in a new way of life. Forgetting Jesus by forgetting to pray invite increased fear, depression, anxiety, apathy, and cynicism, which may be the true things that enslave us.

    Voila. no magic words or boogeymen needed. No fear-based motivation to go to church and pray always.


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