Jesus sees into their hearts and knows their desires. In contrast to their sorrowing because of the comparison to the other nine, Jesus declares them “more blessed,” and compares them not to the other nine, but to John the beloved of the Old World. The Lord understood not only the desire, but the comparison. He therefore gives them a comparison that places their desire in the proper context. They have desired the same that one whom the Lord called beloved had desired. Therefore, they could understand that this was a righteous desire.
The New Testament reference we have for this incident with John the beloved is somewhat cryptic:
20 Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?
21 Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?
22 Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.
23 Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?
There is no clear statement of what happened to John as there is for these three disciples. In the New Testament we have only the statement of the Savior that comes in response to Peter’s question. Peter’s question follows a discussion of Peter’s death, which will be a martyr’s death. Perhaps Peter’s question is simply one of curiosity, but it may be that Peter exhibited the same human trait of comparison as we see in these three, who compare themselves to the other nine. In that context of comparison the Savior notes that John will “tarry till come.” The nature of John’s choice is more clearly explained in the Doctrine and Covenants where this New Testament passage receives a more full context:
Doctrine and Covenants 7:1-8
1 And the Lord said unto me: John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you.
2 And I said unto him: Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.
3 And the Lord said unto me: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people.
4 And for this cause the Lord said unto Peter: If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? For he desired of me that he might bring souls unto me, but thou desiredst that thou mightest speedily come unto me in my kingdom.
5 I say unto thee, Peter, this was a good desire; but my beloved has desired that he might do more, or a greater work yet among men than what he has before done.
6 Yea, he has undertaken a greater work; therefore I will make him as flaming fire and a ministering angel; he shall minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation who dwell on the earth.
7 And I will make thee to minister for him and for thy brother James; and unto you three I will give this power and the keys of this ministry until I come.
8 Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.
The passage in the New Testament led to the development of a legend that became quite widespread, and has become known as the tale of the “wandering Jew.”
“The Wandering Jew.” The first mention of the legend of the Jew condemned to wander till the day of judgment for offering insult to Christ on the way to Calvary is ascribed to Matthew of Paris, who professes to have received the fable from an Armenian Bishop in 1228. The Jew, was, it is stated, a doorkeeper in the palace of Pontius Pilate. In 1547 he turned up at Hamburg, giving his name as Ahasuerus, and declaring that he had been a shoemaker in Jerusalem, and had refused to allow Jesus to rest at his door when he passed it bearing the cross. He struck Jesus who replied. ’I will stand here and rest, but thou shalt go on until the last day.‘ The ’Wandering Jew’ subsequently visited Brussels as Isaac Lacquedom, and also Leipzig, Lubeck, Moscow, Madrid, and Hull.“ (Nelson’s Encyclopedia) Based on this legend several novels have been written portraying the wanderings of this accursed man. George Croly’s work, first published in 1827, and recently republished with the title, ”Tarry Thou Till I Come,“ Lew Wallace’s ”Prince of India,“ and ”The Wandering Jew," by the French author Eugene Sue, are outstanding novels dealing with this legend.
It is very likely that the legend had its beginning in some early period of our era, and was the outgrowth of the words of our Lord to Peter in relation to John. The story, of course, became perverted, and was made to apply to some one blessed that he might do good until the coming of Christ in glory. The Savior said in giving instruction to his disciples in relation to his coming in the clouds of glory; “There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” This saying has been quite generally a mystery to Christian people and it has been interpreted to mean that Christ has always come in glory in the hearts of those who are converted.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 4 vols. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1946-1949], 1: 43 - 44.)
Obviously there is a significant difference in the tale that became popular and the fate of either John or the three Nephites. The Wandering Jew is condemned, and his longevity is a punishment. For John and the three Nephites, theirs is a righteous desire. For at least these three Nephites, it was something for which they were “more blessed.” Perhaps ironically, or simply because we humans are the story-tellers we are, the three Nephites have become the focus of their own collection of tales that are told of miraculous assistance for the righteous needy.
This commentary is not the place to discuss the cycle of stories that have become associated with the three Nephites, but because of their popularity, a couple of references are appropriate.
“The basic structure of these stories seems to be this: someone has a problem; a stranger appears; the stranger solves the problem; the stranger miraculously disappears. A story may have more to it than this, but it must have these features. Any account that is taken into the Nephite cycle will be adjusted (probably unconsciously) to fit the pattern. The remarkable disappearance is particularly interesting. I see no compelling reasons why the Nephites must disappear. In Book of Mormon times they were thrown into prison, dens of wild beasts, and into furnaces, and in none of these instances did they solve their problems by disappearing. But in the modern stories, they vanish from the back seats of speeding cars; they vaporize before one’s eyes; or they walk away and someone later tracing their footsteps in the snow finds that they abruptly end. The Nephites disappear, I believe, because the story requires it. The disappearance is the climax toward which the narrative builds, overshadowing in many instances the kindly deeds the Nephites came to perform in the first place. (“The Paradox of Mormon Folklore” by William A. Wilson, BYU Studies, vol. 17 (1976-1977), Number 1 - Autumn 1976 42.)
The stories that circulate in Mormon circles that related to the three Nephites all tend to be told in the same form. Indeed, when the tale is told in this form, it is understood to involve the three Nephites, and one need not even explicitly link it to them for us to understand that there is a connection.
It is important in this context to understand how folklore, such as the lore of the three Nephites, might relate to history, and in this case, the sacred history in the Book of Mormon. Wilson answers this question:
“To suggest that folklore is literature is to suggest that it is fiction; to suggest that it is fiction is to suggest also that it is not true, that it does not recount history accurately. This suggestion will not trouble many when we apply it to folksongs or to humorous anecdotes, which we really don’t consider factual; but when we apply it to stories of the Three Nephites or to accounts of visits to or from the spirit world or to divine help in genealogical research, then eyebrows arch all over the place. And this brings me once again to my colleague’s question: “If we have three oral accounts of something Joseph Smith did, does that mean it’s folklore?”
The answer to that question depends on the antecedent of the pronoun it. If the pronoun refers to the actual event that started the stories, the answer is clearly no. The event is whatever the event was, and the folklorist will leave to the historian the task of deciphering it. But if the pronoun refers not to the event but to the account of it circulating orally, the answer is yes. The account is, or is on the way to becoming, folklore.” (The Paradox of Mormon Folklore Fn by William A. Wilson Fn, BYU Studies, vol. 17 (1976-1977), Number 1 - Autumn 1976 41.)
It is important to remember, therefore, that while there is certainly folklore concerning the three Nephites, that does not mean that the three Nephites are folklore.