In 3 Nephi there are repeated sections when Jesus warns the future Gentiles that they must repent or face calamity:
11 Therefore it shall come to pass that whosoever will not believe in my words, who am Jesus Christ, which the Father shall cause him to bring forth unto the Gentiles, and shall give unto him power that he shall bring them forth unto the Gentiles, (it shall be done even as Moses said) they shall be cut off from among my people who are of the covenant.
12 And my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver.
13 Their hand shall be lifted up upon their adversaries, and all their enemies shall be cut off.
14 Yea, wo be unto the Gentiles except they repent; for it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Father, that I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots;
15 And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strongholds;
16 And I will cut off witchcrafts out of thy land, and thou shalt have no more soothsayers;
17 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;
18 And I will pluck up thy groves out of the midst of thee; so will I destroy thy cities.
19 And it shall come to pass that all lyings, and deceivings, and envyings, and strifes, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, shall be done away.
20 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;
21 And I will execute vengeance and fury upon them, even as upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.
22 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; (3 Nephi 21:11-22)
This block of verses is peculiar because they seem so violent or seem to promise violence against those who do not repent and believe in Christ. I’ve puzzled over these verses for years, and my opinion continues to evolve about what they mean.
Recently I was reading them and a key thing I noticed in them is the repeated phrase “cut off.” (I have marked the repetitions of this phrase.)
Who will be cut off?
--whosoever will not believe in my words, who am Jesus Christ, which the Father shall cause him to bring forth unto the Gentiles, and shall give unto him power that he shall bring them forth unto the Gentiles
--Adversaries and enemies
--Horses and chariots
--Cities and strongholds
--Witchcrafts and soothsayers
--graven images and standing images
--Those who will not repent and come unto Christ
It is also implied that the same cutting off will be done to “groves,” which were usually a term used to refer to places of immoral fertility rites.
What does it mean to be cut off?
When something is cut off, it is separated from a unified whole. When people are cut off from the Lord’s people, it means they are excommunicated.
You can’t cut off someone who wasn’t a member in the first place, so this section is not directed to nonmember Gentiles, but to members of the Latter-day church of Christ.
The list of those who will be cut off is sometimes very clear and other times vague, so it makes sense to examine closer each of those characteristics or things that will be cut off to see what we can learn.
The Lord will cut off “whosoever will not believe in my words, who am Jesus Christ, which the Father shall cause him [Joseph Smith] to bring forth unto the Gentiles, and shall give unto him power that he shall bring them forth unto the Gentiles” (v11) – This could be interpreted to mean those who do not believe the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine & Covenants. But there is no specific hunt for these people. Rather, they betray themselves through their public unbelief and efforts to lead others not to believe either. Eventually their case comes to the attention of priesthood leaders and they have to be dealt with.
Adversaries and enemies shall be cut off (v13). This sounds like anti-Mormons inside the church and members who fight the church over specific issues. Again, they betray themselves and have to be dealt with eventually.
Horses and chariots shall be cut off out of the midst of Israel (v14). Horses and chariots are implements of war, but as the saying goes, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Objects don’t get excommunicated, but the people who use them do. Here we have to tread carefully because there are faithful Saints in the military, so this can’t be a blanket condemnation of the military. But perhaps there are people whose default problem-solving method is force and violence, and it is so much a part of who they are that they refuse to change. These are abusive and oppressive types. They are certainly in danger of being cut off if they do not repent.
Cities and strongholds will be cut off (v15). Cities evoke the idea of a large group of people who are very closely associated with each other. I think this tells us that even those who are part of a large group inside the church that are fighting the church are not immune from the danger of apostasy and subsequent excommunication. Even if a whole ward or a stake was to apostatize and set themselves against the brethren, they can still be cut off. I haven’t heard of a case where this happened, but this tells us it is certainly possible.
Witchcrafts and soothsayers will be cut off out of the land (v16). Here we have false prophets and those who seemingly bewitch others with counterfeit gospels and mysteries. Sooner or later they will be known by their fruits, which will not be good, and if they don’t repent, they will be removed.
Graven images will be cut off (v17). This is another case where the thing is standing in for the person who made it and/or worships it. Modern idolatry is all about messed up priorities. Whenever someone puts something at a higher priority than God, it will sooner or later lead them to sin, and if they don’t repent of it, they will remove themselves or be removed from the church.
Groves will be plucked up out of the cities (v18). I’ve already explained what groves mean. Here the groves are another thing standing in for the person in question, someone who has committed immoral acts. Those who don’t repent of their immorality and abominations will be cut off.
A list of other sins shall be done away – lying, deceiving, envying, strifes, priestcrafts, and whoredoms (v19). Saying that the sins shall be done away I think emphasizes that the sins can be removed and the people purified, which is what we all hope for, rather than for the penalty of excommunication being imposed.
“whosoever will not repent and come unto my Beloved Son, them will I cut off from among my people, O house of Israel” (v20) – In the end, it doesn’t matter much what sin causes the problem. If someone isn’t willing to repent of it and come to Christ, that will lead to them being cut off. The thing is, when one is faced with this, it will feel simultaneously as though the sin in question is no big deal and not worth the attention of a discipline hearing, but also it will feel like that sin is a major part of the person’s character, such that giving it up will feel like a betrayal of who one is. (Interesting how such contrasting feelings combine to discourage from repentance. I’ll give you three guesses as to who would promote those feelings.) The truth is the opposite – it is worth having leaders look into it, and giving it up is an affirmation of one’s identity as a child of God, and one is better without that sin.
So why is it important for us to know about this?
Again, we should tune into the fact that a person can’t be cut off from the covenant people of Israel unless they were once a part of them in the first place. The warning isn’t to outsiders, but to church members. It is a warning from Christ Himself that He will not suffer the members to go on indefinitely in their sin just because they belong to the church. Complacent members are liable to think that the acceptance and welcoming tolerance of church leaders gives one a free pass to sin as one likes and still enjoy full fellowship. It is true that any person is always welcome, but membership and full fellowship in the church has its conditions, which Christ sets, which include repenting of one’s sins.
Christ’s words affirm this watch-care will be part of the Latter-day church of Christ. I for one am grateful for it, since being called on the carpet at one point by a priesthood leader once saved me from dwindling towards apostasy. I had to make a choice to humble myself, and the Spirit fought with me until I realized my errors and repented.