Nephi was a powerful prophet, a righteous man who had performed powerful miracles in Jesus’ name (3 Nephi 7:18-20). Of course Jesus would know him, and would recognize him among the crowd. As with the gospel of John, we have this description in the third person, even though Mormon has told us that it is Nephi’s account from which this record is taken. When Nephi wrote, he chose not to aggrandize himself by the use of the first person.
What is important aside from the supreme importance of the Savior’s recognition of a faithful servant, is the historical information we must glean from this event. Obviously, Nephi was there. “There,” was in Bountiful, not Zarahemla. Nephi’s family home was in Zarahemla. That is where we have the description of his father preaching upon his tower by the wall by the road leading to the principle market (Helaman 7:10). There is no reason to believe that Nephi would have abandoned that home prior to the burning of Zarahemla.
Nephi’s presence in Bountiful requires two different solutions, depending upon the way one were to read the timing of the appearance of the Messiah after the destruction. If the Messiah appeared soon after the destruction, then Nephi had been on a missionary journey and happened to be in Bountiful. If, on the other hand, the Messiah had appeared as Mormon indicated, then it is more likely that Nephi abandoned his home because Zarahemla had been burned, and he relocated to the new center of the Nephites, Bountiful. This is the preference of this commentary.
“Reading these verses, one may wonder whether Nephi did not already have priesthood authority and whether the ordinance of baptism was not already being practiced among the Nephites. The answer to both questions would be yes. Nephi already had authority, and baptism was already being practiced. The doctrinal significance of these verses is not merely to reiterate the importance of baptism by the proper priesthood authority but rather to demonstrate the establishment of a new gospel dispensation among the Nephites and the accompanying ordinations and ordinances that a new dispensation necessitated.” (Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987-1992], 4: 56.)
Certainly baptisms had been performed since the time of Alma as a sign of entry into the church. Baptism was known as early as the first Nephi. However, baptism took on a new perspective with the risen Messiah. In addition to the sign of entrance into the church, the baptism is now also a sign of accepting the atoning sacrifice. It is the same expansion of meaning that happened in the Old World with the baptism of John became the baptism of Jesus. The New Testament baptism has a richer symbolic context precisely because it is attached to the atonement. In particular, the New Testament baptism added the symbolism of death and resurrection that was completely dependent upon the understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
“There is nothing strange in the fact that when the Lord came to the Nephites, Nephi was baptized and so was everybody else although they had been baptized before.
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. (III Nephi 9:15-22; 11:10-40; 12:18-19; 15:4-10.)
We have a similar condition in this dispensation. The Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were baptized by command of the Angel John the Baptist. (P. of G. P., Joseph Smith 2:68-72.) Several others were baptized before the organization of the Church. However, on the day the church was organized, all who had been previously baptized were baptized again, not for the remission of sins, but for entrance into the Church. In each case the reason was the same. (See Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. II, p. 336.)”
(Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-1966], 3: 206.)