By Scott S. Mitchell
In recent essays on this website, I have discussed two critical Book of Mormon scriptures (2 Nephi 4 and Jacob 2 and 3). The exegesis of those verses by the LDS Church (hereafter also referred to as “the Church”) has been woefully inadequate and misleading. I’ve hypothesized that these two scriptures contain troubling messages which contradict current LDS teachings, thus motivating the Church to ignore, downplay, confuse or misrepresent their messages. In this short essay, however, I will discuss a scriptural passage that’s not only extremely important to all students of the Bible and/or the Book of Mormon, but should be crowned the most overlooked scripture in the entire LDS canon. It’s 3 Nephi 15:22-23 (when considered in connection with 3 Nephi 16:4).
Before proceeding any further, I encourage readers to read 3 Nephi 15:22-23 in context from the excerpt following this paragraph and ask themselves two questions: First, do you remember ever in your lifetime hearing any lesson in Sunday School, Relief Society, Priesthood meeting, seminary, Institute or college religion classes, or any talk in general conference, stake conference or sacrament meeting which discussed these two verses? Second, after reading the two verses through the first time, did at least three enormously significant, paradigm-shifting messages jump out at you? If not, let’s look at what might have been overlooked. Here are the verses in their full context from 3 Nephi 15:
11 And now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words, he said unto those twelve whom he had chosen:
12 Ye are my disciples; and ye are a light unto this people, who are a remnant of the house of Joseph.
13 And behold, this is the land of your inheritance; and the Father hath given it unto you.
14 And not at any time hath the Father given me commandment that I should tell it unto your brethren at Jerusalem.
15 Neither at any time hath the Father given me commandment that I should tell unto them concerning the other tribes of the house of Israel, whom the Father hath led away out of the land.
16 This much did the Father command me, that I should tell unto them:
17 That other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepard.
18 And now, because of stiffneckedness and unbelief they understood not my word; therefore I was commanded to say no more of the Father concerning this thing unto them.
19 But, verily, I say unto you that the Father hath commanded me, and I tell it unto you, that ye were separated from among them because of their iniquity; therefore it is because of their iniquity that they know not of you.
20 And verily, I say unto you again that the other tribes hath the Father separated from them; and it is because of their iniquity that they know not of them.
21 And verily I say unto you, that ye are they of whom I said: Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
22 And they understood me not, for they supposed it had been the Gentiles; for they understood not that the Gentiles should be converted through their preaching.
23 And they understood me not that I said they shall hear my voice; and they understood me not that the Gentiles should not at any time hear my voice—that I should not manifest myself unto them save it were by the Holy Ghost.
It should be clear that the context of verses 22 and 23 is Jesus explaining to the twelve Nephite disciples that their people were those to whom he was referring when he told his disciples in Israel: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” (See John 10:16.) Since Jesus’ explanation on that point is quite significant in and of itself, Mormons tend to stop reading the text that comes thereafter and therefore miss some truly beautiful gems. Let’s look at them.
The Apostles and Disciples in Israel, Who Recorded Jesus’ Words and Became the Writers of the New Testament, Misunderstood Everything Jesus Said in John 10:16
Jesus is unsparing in describing what his apostles and disciples in the Old World didn’t understand about the other sheep whose shepherd he would become after they heard his voice. Their ideas were all wrong. They thought he was talking about the Gentiles. He wasn’t. They thought he would preach to the Gentiles and thereby convert them to Christianity. He would not; his apostles and disciples would do that. They thought the Gentiles would come into the fold in the same manner that they, the children of Israel, had come into the fold–by hearing Jesus’ preaching and watching him perform miracles in their presence. This was another misconception, and as we shall shortly see, one of great magnitude. In other words, the apostles and disciples of Jesus, who were closest to him and wrote the New Testament, and were then and are now considered the scriptorians and teachers upon whom Christianity most heavily relies, were spectacularly wrong about Jesus’ other sheep. They therefore had false ideas with which they could only mislead the people if they addressed that gospel subject. Prophets and apostles, which these men indisputably were, can be wrong even on the most fundamental of teachings. We must take responsibility for scriptural understanding upon ourselves. Is that not important to understand?
The Apostles and Disciples, Great as They Were, Never Did Learn the Truth about Jesus’ Other Sheep Because They Weren’t Sufficiently Interested in the Subject and Never Asked Jesus or his Father About It
Jesus explained that if his disciples in the Old World, who had already failed during his earthly ministry and after his resurrection to ask him about his people elsewhere, didn’t ask God the Father in prayer about the matter, they never would find out who his other sheep were. Instead, that fact would be revealed first to the Gentiles by the Book of Mormon. In 3 Nephi 16:4, he said:
And I command you that ye shall write these sayings after I am gone, that if it so be that my people at Jerusalem, they who have seen me and been with me in my ministry, do not ask the Father in my name, that they may receive a knowledge of you by the Holy Ghost, and also of the other tribes whom they know not of, that these sayings which ye shall write shall be kept and shall be manifested unto the Gentiles, that through the fulness of the Gentiles, the remnant of their seed, who shall be scattered forth upon the face of the earth because of their unbelief, may be brought in, or may be brought to a knowledge of me, their Redeemer.
Since the New Testament contains no teachings concerning who the other sheep were who weren’t of the Old World fold, and the Book of Mormon became the source of our knowledge on that subject, it’s apparent the great church leaders in Palestine never corrected their initial negligently-assumed false notions. We therefore cannot assume otherwise-righteous leaders will eventually pursue scriptural knowledge they haven’t yet sought if we simply wait long enough, no matter what other great things those leaders may be accomplishing. Everyone has to do their own intellectual and spiritual homework. Truths never sought aren’t eventually found.
We Gentiles Are Not at Any Time to Hear Jesus’ Voice, but Are Instead to be Converted to His Gospel Through the Influence of the Holy Ghost
There can be no honest dispute that throughout the Book of Mormon, the term “Gentile” or “Gentiles” uniformly refers to the same discrete group of people, and that Joseph Smith and all the leaders of the LDS Church during the 19th century were Gentiles. The group included those nations of Europe who adopted Christianity after Christ, whose people, over the following two millennia, either remained in Europe or migrated to the North American countries of the United States and Canada. In short, the Gentiles were the Christian world–people who recognized the Bible as their scripture. And when the Book of Mormon came forth, the Lord brought it forth through Gentiles living in the present-day United States. Those who might dispute this definition of Gentiles,1 or argue that 19th Century LDS church leaders aren’t viewed as Gentiles by the Book of Mormon, must swim uphill against an avalanche of Book of Mormon scriptures to the contrary.2 Therefore, Jesus is saying in 3 Nephi 15:22-23 that the Gentiles who would bring the Book of Mormon to the Lamanites and other remnants of the house of Israel, who comprised all the early leaders of the LDS Church, would not hear his voice and would not have him manifested to them in any way except by the Holy Ghost.
The implications of this statement by Jesus cannot be overstated. The entire self-concept of the LDS Church is tied up in the notion that Jesus Christ spoke face to face with Joseph Smith and told him all the Christian churches were not only wrong, but were abominations in God’s sight. This story constitutes the Church’s founding narrative. The Church also places enormously heavy emphasis on Joseph Smith’s claim that Jesus appeared and spoke the same way with him and Sidney Rigdon in 1832, and with Oliver Cowdery and him during the Kirkland Temple dedication in 1836. (Neither Rigdon or Cowdery are known to have ever corroborated these claims by Joseph in their own writings, orations or correspondence, however.) Elsewhere on this website, I have analyzed the deeply problematic history and doctrine surrounding these claims. See, e.g., Whether Joseph Smith’s Canonized First Vision Account is Authentic History and Erroneous LDS teachings from the Doctrine and Covenants and LDS Church History Regarding Elijah and Redeeming the Dead. But here in the Book of Mormon we have Jesus himself saying that the Gentiles wouldn’t hear his voice, and he placed added stress on this point by stating it would happen “not at any time.” He would “manifest” himself to Gentiles only through them reading his word or hearing it preached, and thereafter receiving the spiritual confirmation through the Holy Ghost that it was true.
So what am I saying? That the three reported incidents where Joseph Smith alleged the Lord spoke to him face to face didn’t really happen? Yes, indeed, that’s what I’m saying. But remember whom I’m quoting. Jesus himself is pretty good authority. He said he wouldn’t do what official LDS church history says he did do.
And if you think about it, it doesn’t make logical sense that Jesus would speak to LDS Church leaders face to face, and manifest himself to every other Gentile through the Holy Ghost. Believing Christ’s words, without having heard them spoken in person, requires more faith, and more spiritual exertion, than believing his message because he spoke it to you in your presence. Jesus taught his apostle Thomas, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (See John 20:29.) He taught the Nephites the same thing. “. . .[B]lessed are ye if ye shall believe in me and be baptized, after that ye have seen me and know that I am. And again, more blessed are they who shall believe in your words because that ye shall testify that ye have seen me, and that ye know that I am.” (See 3 Nephi 12:1, 2, emphasis added.)
Presumably, the Lord wouldn’t want his leaders exerting themselves less than the rest of his followers in order to access the Holy Ghost’s influence. Indeed, this ability and willingness to rely on the Holy Ghost to know the truth of all things, as opposed to requiring an in-person audience with the Lord , was the salient distinguishing feature of the Gentiles. As Jesus said in 3 Nephi 16:
6 And blessed are the Gentiles, because of their belief in me, in and of the Holy Ghost, which witnesses unto them of me and of the Father.
7 Behold, because of their belief in me, saith the Father, and because of the unbelief of you, O house of Israel, in the latter days shall the truth come unto the Gentiles, that the fulness of these things shall be made known unto them.
The Costs of Ignoring 3 Nephi 15: 22-23
Notwithstanding the straightforward clarity of these two little verses, entire movements and spin-off churches (whose members grew up immersed in LDS culture) are being formed today, and have been forming since the 1840s, inspired by the quest to receive what they think Joseph Smith received– the Lord’s in-person appearance declaring his truths with his own voice. Not surprisingly, the leaders of these groups often assert they, too, have had experiences similar to Joseph’s, thus qualifying them for leadership.
And even within the LDS Church, this same culture of judging a person’s righteousness by the degree or number of face-to-face encounters with deity today causes many orthodox LDS members to believe current apostles must have beheld the Lord’s face and heard his voice. If they haven’t done so, they reason, they’d be just like the rest of us! To these brothers and sisters, learning truth through study, prayer and the promptings of the Holy Ghost is insufficiently impressive. They seek for their leaders, and often themselves, to enjoy the spectacularity of the Lord’s visitations, or at least the sound of his own voice in their ears (an angel’s voice being decidedly less satisfying, presumably)– the same as several well-known non-Gentile ancients received. They don’t actually want their status as Gentiles to distinguish them from those of old times in this way.
And what is lost in these Gentiles’ thirst to elevate themselves and their leaders, besides an accurate understanding of the Lord’s ways? Humility.
What We Should Do
If we can maintain our humility, however, three wonderful things will happen. First, we’ll read our scriptures more carefully, more fully aware of our propensity to overlook important verses. Second, we’ll stop seeking spectacular visitations from God, and thereby cease striving to elevate some of us Gentiles above our fellow beings. False pride will decline. Third, we’ll muster the courage to examine our religious beliefs, however deeply embedded they may be, and root out those creeds which don’t comport with the plain verses of the Book of Mormon and Bible.
Then, as an added bonus, we Gentiles will merit the Lord’s continued blessings, which come to those who can find actual comfort in the still, small voice of the Comforter.
1. The LDS Church nevertheless interprets the term “Gentiles” inaccurately. The third definition provided in the following paragraph is almost completely incorrect, as is the sentence that follows it. I’ve placed the errors in italics. From the definition of “Gentiles” on the LDS website’s Guide to the Scriptures, we read:
As used in the scriptures, Gentiles has several meanings. Sometimes it designates people of non-Israelite lineage, sometimes people of non-Jewish lineage, and sometimes nations that are without the gospel, even though there may be some Israelite blood among the people. This latter usage is especially characteristic of the word as used in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.
2. See 1 Nephi 10:11, 14; 1 Nephi 13:19-42; 1 Nephi 15:13; 1 Nephi 22:8-9; 2 Nephi 30:3; 3 Nephi 16:4,6-7; 3 Nephi 20:27; 3 Nephi 21:2-6, 9-11; 3 Nephi 23:2, 4; 3 Nephi 26:8; 3 Nephi 29:1; Mormon 5:9, 15; Ether 12:22.