The great sermon Jesus gave to the Nephites is an incredibly rich document. It can be viewed in literally dozens of ways. What follows is simply one way of looking at the concluding part of the sermon, based on Joseph Smith’s translation of its counterpart—the biblical Sermon on the Mount.
According to this way of reading the sermon, the first chapter (3 Ne. 12; Matt. 5) focuses primarily on what a disciple of Jesus ought to be—beginning with the attributes listed in the Beatitudes and ending with the command to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.
The next chapter (3 Ne. 13; Matt. 6) centers on what the Lord’s disciples should do in order to gain help from God in their quest for greater wholeness, or holiness (perfection)—fasting, sincere prayer, and giving alms in such a way that God alone is aware of their efforts, that their reward may be exclusively from God rather than from their fellowmen.
In the Joseph Smith Translation of the sermon’s final chapter (3 Ne. 14; Matt. 7), the Savior teaches his disciples what they should say as they proceed to share the gospel with others. This chapter, according to the Prophet’s translation, begins: “Now these are the words which Jesus taught his disciples that they should say unto the people” (JST, Matt. 7:1; italics added). What then follows in the Prophet’s translation is sometimes a dialogue between the Master and his disciples, rather than the continuation of a formal sermon.
If this is a message for all who would share the gospel, then this last chapter (as it currently stands) constitutes what might be viewed as a fourfold message to potential converts, as well as good counsel for all members of Christ’s church:
Do not judge or condemn others; instead, seek first and foremost to improve your own life.
Learn first to commune with God, rather than immediately seeking to understand “the mysteries of the kingdom.”
Make covenants with the Lord, realizing that by so doing you may receive great blessings, but that you may also encounter difficulties and challenges.
Seek to love others, listening for the promptings and guidance of the Spirit, and do not regard it a failure of the gospel if you do not encounter perfection in Church members.
Avoiding Unrighteous Judgment
Even as a young missionary, I noticed that those who had entered the Church sometimes became critical of those around them who did not embrace the teachings of the missionaries with the same fervor as they had shown. They wanted to change others before they had completely reformed themselves. I also saw missionaries and members who seemed to suffer from this problem.
Negative criticism, or “unrighteous judgment,” as the Lord calls it, seems to come naturally to mortals. It can be a form of self-righteousness and also a way of excusing our own actions.
However, as Paul and Mormon both suggest, the gospel centers in three Christlike attributes: faith, hope, and charity—charity (the pure love of Christ) being the most important. (See 1 Cor. 13; Moro. 7:38–48.) The pure love of Christ is a unifying force that seeks to assist, whereas unrighteous judgment and criticism do the opposite. Many of us, unfortunately, have been both the victims and the perpetrators of unrighteous judgment ourselves, and we know what it does to relationships.
Yet is seems almost impossible to enter into any type of relationship without making some types of judgment—intentionally or otherwise. I suspect that all of us can look back at a superficial judgment we made in such a case, only to be sorry later. Though there are certainly other incidents in my own life, I remember one occasion especially, and it still causes me embarrassment.
One day, while teaching at the institute of religion adjacent to the University of Utah, I was troubled when one person whispered to another all through the opening prayer. The guilty parties were not hard to spot because they continued whispering all through the class. I kept glaring at them, hoping that they would take the hint, but they didn’t seem to notice. Several times during the hour, I was tempted to ask them to take their conversation outside if they felt it was so urgent—but fortunately something kept me from giving vent to my feelings.
After the class, one of them came to me and apologized that she hadn’t explained to me before class that her friend was deaf. The friend could read lips, but since I was discussing—as I often do—with my back to the class, writing at the chalkboard and talking over my shoulder, my student had been “translating” for her friend, telling her what I was saying. To this day I am thankful that both of us were spared the embarrassment that might have occurred had I given vent to a judgment made without knowing the facts.
The type of judgments addressed in the Savior’s sermon, however, seem particularly to be the judgments made by those who have need to change many things in their own lives. It is as if the totally blind were attempting to perform delicate eye surgery on the partially blind.
The Joseph Smith Translation makes it clear that the Lord desires his disciples to render righteous judgment: “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment” (JST, Matt. 7:1). Righteous judgment is made under the influence of the Spirit by those who are seeking to become worthy recipients of the Spirit. This type of judgment always builds rather than tears down.
I marvel at the wisdom in the Lord’s statement, “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (3 Ne. 14:2). Jesus had made the same point earlier, as he stood before the vast multitude teaching them about prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (3 Ne. 13:11). So intent was he that the point be made that, upon completing his recitation of what has come to be known as the Lord’s Prayer, the Savior reiterated his concern:
“For, if ye forgive men their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
“But if you forgive not men their trespasses neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (3 Ne. 13:14–15).
In short, we will be judged by the same type of standard we use to judge others. If I am a forgiving person, God can be forgiving toward me in the final judgment; if I am an unforgiving person, I must not expect forgiveness at the final judgment. If I am not compassionate, I am not godlike and therefore not a candidate for the responsibilities and attendant blessings of a godlike life. If I am not compassionate, justice relegates me to a lesser position of responsibility in God’s kingdoms. God’s mercy cannot override the element of justice, because I am what I am—and I am not prepared to be given more power over others, certainly not the kind of power associated with godhood in the celestial kingdom. I have, in effect, revealed myself through my judgment of others.
Later the Savior told the Twelve Disciples chosen in the New World:
“Ye shall be judges of this people, according to the judgment which I shall give unto you, which shall be just. Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27).
Seeking the Lord, Rather than Mysteries
After discussing judgment in his great sermon, the Lord next addresses the problem of sharing sacred matters with those who are not yet prepared to understand. (See 3 Ne. 14:6–11.) The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible adds some dimension to this part of the discussion:
“Go ye into the world, saying unto all, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come nigh unto you.
“And the mysteries of the kingdom ye shall keep within yourselves; for it is not meet to give that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls unto swine, lest they trample them under their feet.
“For the world cannot receive that which ye, yourselves, are not able to bear: wherefore ye shall not give your pearls unto them, lest they turn again and rend you.
“[Rather,] say unto them, Ask of God; ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (JST, Matt. 7:9–12; italics added).
By instructing the disciples to keep “the mysteries of the kingdom within [themselves],” and by then telling them to teach others to ask, seek, and find, the Savior offered a pattern that can guide all of us as we seek for gospel knowledge.
What follows that instruction is clarified in the Joseph Smith Translation of the Sermon on the Mount through the dialogue between the Savior and his disciples. When he instructs the newly called missionaries to teach people to seek personal communication with God, the disciples in Palestine respond by anticipating the answer of the unconverted:
“They will say unto us, … God, we know, heard Moses and some of the prophets; but us he will not hear.
“And they will say, We have the law for our salvation, and that is sufficient for us” (JST, Matt. 7:14–15).
In response, Jesus uses the analogy of the children who come seeking bread and fish from their father, who would certainly not turn them away. Why then should they expect to be turned away by their Heavenly Father, who more than anything wants them to come to know him? (See 3 Ne. 14:9–11.) They may eventually come to understand the mysteries of the kingdom, but they can do this effectively only by first drawing close to God and becoming familiar with the voice of the Spirit. (See 1 Cor. 2:9–14.)
Jesus then ties together both of these ideas—the idea of judging righteously and that of seeking God’s help—in one terse, summarizing statement, commonly called the Golden Rule: We should treat others in the same constructive manner that we would have them treat us—and strive to love God and our fellowmen as ourselves.
I have seen people leave the Church because they joined with the idea that membership in the kingdom was an escape from all of their troubles. After joining, they discovered that Church membership, although richly rewarding, carries with it responsibilities and obligations and can even bring challenges and trials. It makes demands upon our time and requires our best efforts; it calls upon us to interact with people who sometimes irritate and frustrate us and with whom we may prefer not to associate—for as the Lord taught in Palestine, the gospel net gathers fish of all kinds. (See Matt. 13:47.) It calls us to a way of life that more often than not demands our best. Some new members simply do not anticipate the difficulty—nor recognize the accompanying blessings that come only in facing such difficulty.
Jesus told his disciples to teach others to expect this. We all need to remind ourselves periodically that such opposition is necessary to growth. In fact, opposition may well be at the core of our coming to understand Christ. How much better off we will be if we are challenged to accept this struggle from the first!
Before anyone can be a master in any endeavor, he or she must serve an exhausting apprenticeship. No dancer, no ball player, no musician performs with ease until he or she has spent countless hours of diligent practice and preparation. I have to remind myself of this every time I see an athlete or a dancer perform with seemingly effortless ease.
The same is true of growth and freedom in life. Christ binds his disciples in certain ways in order to free them, while Lucifer appears to “free” his followers totally so that he may restrict them forever.
Anticipating Imperfection among Members
The Savior calls upon us to trust him as our guide in seeking wholeness, or holiness. Few there be that find the way, even after entering the gate, he reminds his disciples. He recommends that new converts focus on him as a role model, rather than on others. Wolves (even within the Church, apparently) will come posing as sheep—as servants of God. He reminds us that self-serving individuals may pose as servants of God and that we must therefore seek the gift of discernment, which will help us recognize individuals whose outward actions do not indicate inward conditions.
Nearly four centuries after the Savior’s sermon to the Nephites, the prophet Mormon wrote a letter to his son, Moroni, in which he made an interesting observation on this part of the sermon. The first nineteen verses of Moroni 7 [Moro. 7:1–19] contain, in effect, Mormon’s commentary on 3 Nephi 14:16–23 [3 Ne. 14:16–23]. In this letter on faith, hope, and charity, he discusses at length the way one can know the good (people or ideas) from the evil.
According to Mormon, Jesus did not imply that an evil person could not perform what outwardly appeared to be good acts, but rather that the acts themselves were not considered good in the sight of God if the giver’s heart was not pure:
“For I remember the word of God which saith by their works ye shall know them; for if their works be good, then they are good also.
“For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.
“For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.
“For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.
“And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.
“Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift” (Moro. 7:5–10; italics added).
According to Mormon, a man may sin by praying or by offering alms if his motives are not pure. Therefore, our judgment, according to Mormon, is based ultimately on what we are, rather than exclusively on what we have done. Further, according to Mormon, the ultimate test of good and evil resides in whether the act (or the person) brings one closer to the Spirit of Christ: “Every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ” (Moro. 7:16).
As a young missionary, I had always understood that those Christ referred to in this part of the sermon—who come before the judgment seat of God and claim entrance into his kingdom by virtue of the fact that they have prophesied in his name, and have cast out devils, and have done many wonderful works in his name (see 3 Ne. 14:21–23)—were those who were not members of his Church. I was surprised to learn later that President John Taylor taught that this passage referred to those in the Church, rather than to those outside it:
“You say that means the outsiders? No, it does not. … This means you, Latter-day Saints, who heal the sick, cast out devils and do many wonderful things in the name of Jesus.” (From an address given at Salt Lake Stake Conference, 6 January 1879, as quoted in Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, Hyrum M. Smith and Janne M. Sjodahl, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957, pages 462–63.)
To those at the Judgment who claim to be righteous by virtue of outward acts alone, the Lord will respond, “I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (3 Ne. 14:23; italics added)—or, as the Prophet Joseph rendered the parallel passage in his translation of Matthew, “Ye never knew me” (JST, Matt. 7:33).
The secret to success is in coming to know God: in loving him, in loving his creations, and in coming to think as he thinks, to feel as he feels, and to act as he acts. As Jesus taught in his last prayer before his crucifixion, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3; italics added). We gain eternal life—God’s life (see Moses 7:35)—as we come to know God in the fullest sense, by communing with him, by partaking of his Spirit and power, by involving ourselves in his work, and eventually by becoming like him.
Building upon the Rock
The conclusion to the entire sermon is Jesus’ invitation to all to build their houses (their lives) upon a rock. (See 3 Ne. 14:24–27.) In reality, this was also the message of the introduction to the sermon.
In introducing the sermon, Jesus taught his listeners the principles of faith in him, repentance, baptism, and the bestowal of the Holy Ghost. He called these principles his doctrine and stated that “whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them” (see 3 Ne. 11:31–39)—a forceful metaphor for the assembled Nephites, who had recently seen not only their houses but much of their civilization crumble under the impact of floods, winds, and earthquakes. Now they were being called to build a new civilization upon a more sure foundation.
In fact, another way of viewing the last chapter of the sermon is to look at it as an alternative way of talking about these same basic principles: repenting rather than judging; having faith in Christ rather than in the mysteries and esoteric teachings; being baptized by entering in at the strait gate; and seeking the guidance of the Spirit for the purpose of discerning good from bad in the Church and in the world.
In some ways, these four principles are what the entire sermon is all about. They are, in fact, what the gospel is all about: having faith in Christ and his way of life, seeking to change our lives to be more like his, asking for his help in the process by covenanting through ordinances such as baptism, and receiving his aid through the gift of the Holy Ghost.
As an educator, spending up to 90 percent of my waking hours exploring thickets of ideas, I have been at times astonished by the breadth and depth of the teachings of Jesus. Every question, every system that I discover in my exploration seems to have been anticipated or commented upon somewhere in the vast range of the Master’s teachings.
More moving to me, however, is the simplicity and conciseness at the core of his gospel. After all of the ideological edifices that have been built upon this simple foundation have been stripped away, that foundation is revealed in one fundamental principle: the idea that after an extensive and thorough search, we can come to know the Father and the Savior.
Everything else is simply a variation on this basic theme. That is the message of Christ’s great sermon to the Nephites, and it is also a message that will strengthen us, as members of the Church, in order that we may all stand firm against the floods, the winds, and the gates of hell that would otherwise destroy us.