“Jesus’ Sermon to the Nephites,” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 58
Often at clear mountain streams, fascinated by their abundant refreshment for soul and body, I have remembered the Master’s statements to the Samaritan woman, calling himself the source of “living water.” (John 4:10.) His teachings do indeed continue, in clarity and simplicity, to refresh and satisfy even the most unquenchable thirst for understanding.
Especially is this true of his first sermon to the Nephites, found in Third Nephi. It is obviously a retelling of many of his teachings to those in the old world, for he remarked: “Behold, ye have heard the things which I taught before I ascended to my Father.” (3 Ne. 15:1.)
It also seems to have contained a pattern for a Christian life, and this, I assume, was why he gave the sermon before emphasizing to the Nephites the great priesthood ordinance of baptism. Many of the Nephites present had been baptized under the Mosaic covenant; now they were about to be baptized under a new covenant. President Joseph Fielding Smith has explained the Nephite condition at the time of the coming of the Savior: “The Church among the Nephites before the coming of Christ was not in its fulness and was under the law of Moses. The Savior restored the fulness and gave to them all the ordinances and blessings of the gospel. Therefore, it actually became a new organization, and through baptism they came into it.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, 3:205.)
Shortly after Jesus introduced himself to the Nephites, he selected twelve and gave them the authority to baptize. (3 Ne. 11:21–22.) Then he gave the sermon extending from chapter 11 through chapter 14 [3 Ne. 11–14] that outlines the new covenant. Eventually all who desired to enter into the new covenant received baptism.
That sermon is rich with a multiplicity of thoughts, yet I also find great value in standing back, as it were, and examining the major contours of the sermon, just as I can enjoy the shape of the mountain stream as much as the individual rivulets, rapids, and eddies.
The idea of seeing the sermon’s organic unity first came to me years ago. There is perhaps nothing definitive about the shape I perceive in the sermon. Comparisons shared by others have been fascinating to me because of their diversity. Indeed, every time I review the sermon myself, it takes on slightly new contours. Like other great creative pieces, the sermon continues to grow in grandeur and profundity as each student pushes his or her own spiritual dimensions wider or deeper.
Currently I sense five major segments in the sermon’s broadest outlines. First, after a brief introduction explaining baptism, the Savior invites all to come to him, to enter into discipleship under the new covenant, to partake of the ordinances, to come under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, and to receive a remission of their sins. (3 Ne. 12:1–3.)
The second section (3 Ne. 12:4–48) outlines the Master-pattern and suggests the character of his disciples. The third segment (3 Ne. 13) focuses on how to gain the spiritual strength to become a disciple in actuality. The fourth (3 Ne. 14:1–12) suggests the manner in which his disciples should approach others, especially in attempting to share the gospel.
The fifth, and culminating, point (3 Ne. 14:13–27) issues another invitation to enter into Christian discipleship, to demonstrate outwardly the results of the inward change, to truly come to know the Master, and to build one’s life upon foundations of stone.
I feel a culmination of the first part of the sermon in the statement usually considered to be the first of the Beatitudes, “Yea, blessed are the poor in spirit who come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (3 Ne. 12:3.) The sense of summary is clearer in both the Book of Mormon and in the Inspired Version. It begins with “yea,” implying an affirmation of something that has come before. The next verse begins with “And again,” implying a reaffirmation of the thought.
Even more clearly, the contents are a good summary of the gospel message, an invitation to come to Christ. The first principle of the gospel is faith in Christ, in his saving power, in his life-style, in his love. This appears to have been the message of the prophets from the beginning. (See especially 2 Ne. 25:26.) That message is suggested in the very name of Jesus, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “Jehovah saves.”
When we believe—in the fullest sense of that word—in the Master, we seek to model our lives after his. This in turn leads us to repentance, with all of its ramifications. Not only do we forsake the errors of our past, but also we seek to incorporate into our lives those principles of the Christlike life that we may not yet have fully embraced—love, compassion, mercy, long-suffering. We enter into a covenant with the Lord through the designated ordinances. As we remain true to this covenant, acting under the direction of the Spirit of the Lord, we begin to pattern ourselves after the mold of the Master. Coming to Jesus implies total surrender and total dedication. Ordinances, Church participation, and activity within the Kingdom all strengthen us in our drive to become more like the Master.
As Christ points out in his introduction, those who come to him with true humility, “poor in spirit,” who enter into covenant with him through baptism, who receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and embrace the kingdom of God, will receive a remission of their sins.
This part of the sermon seems to culminate in the admonition “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” (3 Ne. 12:48.) This portion of the sermon contains two approaches to a description of perfect character. First he seems to describe, in the Beatitudes, the general pattern of the Christian life, and second he underscores the point by contrasting the new law with practices that had developed under the Mosaic law.
The Savior begins the Beatitudes to the Nephites with the statement, “Blessed are all they that mourn.” (3 Ne. 12:4.) Besides the comfort the Savior thus extends to those who face sorrow in this life, the Lord may also be referring to those who come to him with broken hearts and contrite spirits—two terms that he uses often, and two terms that suggest mourning and true humility before the Master.
I have come to understand through watching myself and others that significant personality changes can be made only when there is a genuine sorrow for the present situation. I, like others, have often made resolves to practice new virtues and to change bad habits, but only when my heart has been broken and when my spirit is truly contrite do I have the motivation and the power to change. Mourning for past sins and present weaknesses, then, seems the first step to conversion and repentance.
In turn, mourning leads one to surrender his present situation (“meekness”); it leads him to seek a better (“hungering and thirsting after righteousness”). The first step is toward greater humility, a greater desire to be instructed by those who can help give guidance and help with problems that caused the mourning. In short, one becomes open to other influences, willing to receive help. The Savior uses the phrase, “Blessed are the meek.” (3 Ne. 12:5.)
Secondly, the person seeks help with full intent. This aspect is active in nature. Nothing in life becomes more important than relief from his suffering; his behavior testifies of his true earnestness. The Lord states simply, “Blessed are all they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost.” (3 Ne. 12:6.)
His metaphor is powerful. Few things stimulate us to activity more forcibly than hunger and thirst. Waiting doesn’t make them go away. They gnaw until they receive attention. How different our life-styles would be if our desire for righteousness were that strong.
The metaphor also brings us back to the Lord’s statements in Palestine, when he referred to himself as the “bread of life,” and the source of “living water,” and promised: “He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35.)
When we acquire the Holy Ghost’s companionship, as a result of hungering and thirsting after righteousness, a change in the inner man results. According to the pattern outlined in the Beatitudes we will feel merciful toward others. In turn, we receive mercy. (3 Ne. 12:7.) Justice and mercy are important elements in the Master’s character; they should also be important in the life of his disciples.
Further, as the next Beatitude suggests, the guidance of the Spirit leads those who hunger and thirst after righteousness to purity of heart (3 Ne. 12:8), toward the establishment of Zions throughout the world, places where the pure in heart dwell. In short, it leads one to attempt the work of a peacemaker (3 Ne. 12:9), following the pattern of the Prince of Peace. Eventually, this work will culminate in establishing the New Jerusalem, and it is not without significance that the core of the name itself—“salem”—denotes peace.
Ironically, the inevitable consequence of this process is persecution and opposition, the lot of the children of God from the beginning. And yet the Master exclaims, “Blessed are all they who are persecuted for my name’s sake.” (3 Ne. 12:10.) Suffering for his cause will be followed by eventual joy in his kingdom.
Finally, suffering for the gospel makes the righteous mourn for a third reason: not just for the sorrows of life, and not just for their own sins, but also for the sins of those who have rejected the Master’s message. This mourning, in turn, seems likely to lead to greater meekness before the Lord, an even greater desire to understand, and a greater hunger for righteousness. In this context, perhaps, the metaphor of “one eternal round” used by the prophet Alma (Alma 37:12) may be applied. In a spiraling process one proceeds from grace to grace, from understanding to understanding. This greater knowledge of Christ means that the disciple, like the Master, comes to be a light for the world in times of confusion, a seasoning influence in times of purposelessness. (3 Ne. 12:13–16.)
To underline the lesson he has just taught, the Master contrasts rigid and often Spiritless interpretations of the old covenant with the total dependence on the Spirit of the new. (3 Ne. 12:17–20.) Whereas the emphasis in the past had often been placed on performance alone—the letter of the law—the new emphasis places equal stress on motives, on the inner man. Almost two centuries earlier, Abinadi had described the old law as “a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him.” (Mosiah 13:30.) The new law went further, demanding more perfect obedience, while giving us an opportunity to know God, through Christ as he lived in the flesh, and through the Holy Ghost, who could come to us at any time.
Those who observed the old law to the letter were often good, righteous people: but it was (and is) possible to try to live the letter of the law while searching for seeming loopholes that allow one to wear a cloak of legality, or to become piously smug about one’s obedience to law, losing the “broken heart and contrite spirit” necessary to salvation.
Accordingly, under the new covenant the Lord emphasizes that there are no loopholes. The Lord requires disciples to seek purity of heart, a kind of transparency of soul in which the heart is shown through the action. We are not only enjoined to control our actions, but to reshape our very soul. In this sense the old law is fulfilled—not abolished or set aside, but given greater dimension. For example, anger arises far more often and more easily than the urge to kill, but the true Christian will rise above even anger. (3 Ne. 12:21–26.) He will strive toward perfection. (3 Ne. 12:48.)
But how? Anyone who has tried to change a serious flaw in his personality knows the problem. Thus in the next segment of the sermon, after instructing his disciples to seek perfection, the Lord turns to the problem of how we can generate the strength to change character. His answer, contained in 3 Nephi 13, is intriguing [3 Ne. 13]. It contains some of the richest instruction we have on giving offerings, meaningful prayer, and acceptable fasting. Furthermore, it tells us that the Saint will do all of these in secret. (See, for example, 3 Ne. 13:3–6, 16–18.) His actions concern him and his God, first and foremost. Jesus understood well that religious activity could also be prompted by unrighteous motives. Harsh, judgmental personalities sometimes gravitate to religious organizations. Even during his earthly ministry the Lord had moved constantly among those he called hypocrites (literally “actors”), those who were not pure in heart, those who entered into religious activity to be seen of men.
The Master is realistic. He points out that conspicuous piety can have its rewards, but that one should not expect double pay, to be rewarded by man and God. Each one needs to choose between receiving the praise of man or inner strength from God. The point is important. Christ seems to imply that the disciple must be prepared to be satisfied with treasures that are not necessarily of this world. We must, as disciples, “come out” of the world. (3 Ne. 13: 19–21.)
To the twelve he had just chosen, the Lord further teaches how they must interpret this principle of turning from the world and placing total faith in him. In what still remains one of the most beautiful passages in all literature—“Consider the lilies of the field …” (3 Ne. 13:28–30)—the Lord explains the kind of single-heartedness with which they must fulfill the new covenant.
The next segment of the sermon deals with how a peacemaker should treat others. Certain aspects of this segment become clearer perhaps with a careful reading of the Inspired Version of the Bible (Matt. 7:1–21), which specifies that these instructions concern what disciples should teach others. Significantly, in the Book of Mormon sermon, the instructions are applicable to the Saints as well, as they prepare to enter into the new covenant.
A good summation of this segment appears in what I consider to be its closing statement: “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them, for this is the law and the prophets.” (3 Ne. 14:12.)
Simple advice, yet how often it is overlooked, especially in the context of teaching others the gospel! If we could only keep in mind our own conversion experience and remember how we had to grow from precept to precept, we would be in a much better position to share the gospel with others. The Master instructs his followers not to be impatient with others, yet also warns them not to “cast their pearls” before those who are spiritually incapable of understanding. I assume that he means for us to focus initially on the gospel basics. The advice he gives is to teach prayer first. We should encourage those investigating the gospel to ask of the Master, to seek him, and to knock at his door with their petitions. Only then will they understand the beauties and message of the gospel. Until this contact between man and God is made, the work of the missionaries is of small effect.
Four points have been made in the sermon thus far by the Lord: (1) an invitation to come to him for help, (2) a description of the character demanded of the disciple, (3) the source of strength to aid in achieving this character, and (4) the work of the Christian in sharing the message of the gospel. It is probably no accident that these points parallel the major points of the Beatitudes, the form of the sermon itself reinforcing its message.
The final point made by the Master appears to be a summary statement of sorts, with special emphasis on the urgency of accepting the conditions of the covenant. He begins by inviting those assembled into the “strait gate.” (3 Ne. 14:13.) Note that the word is strait, not straight. Besides the obvious reference to the strictness of the standards for exaltation, this can connote the idea of being bound together tightly. The idea of binding has, for me, overtones of covenant-making and is, at the same time, an invitation away from laxity and ease to the strenuous work of the true disciple.
The point is also made that the role of the disciple is more than just lip-service, more than simply identifying oneself superficially with the Master’s cause. Even those who have succeeded in prophesying, casting out devils, and doing other marvelous works in his name will find themselves outside the kingdom if they have not come to know the Master. (See 3 Ne. 14:21–23.) I assume that this means Church members as well as those outside of the covenant.
Coming to know the Master, which Jesus equated with eternal life (John 17:3), seems to imply far more than just a superficial knowledge about him. It connotes an understanding of him, a union with him through the companionship of his Spirit, an awareness of his goals, his aspirations, and a kinship born of common experience. It implies a total commitment, action as well as understanding. Faith in the Master means doing the works that he would do if he were here, bearing the loads that he would bear, and seeking to shape oneself totally in the mold of the Master.
The Master explained all this to the Nephites before they entered into a covenant relationship with him through baptism at the hands of his ordained servants. Yet the sermon is as relevant today as it was for the Nephite disciples nearly two millennia ago. Like a river of living water, running perpetually, it is a source of comfort and instruction for people of all ages who earnestly desire the Christlike life.