After [Moroni’s] third visit, he again ascended into heaven as before, and I was again left toon the strangeness of what I had just experienced; when almost immediately after the heavenly messenger had ascended from me for the third time, the cock crowed, and I found that day was approaching, so that our interviews must have occupied the whole of that night.
I’ve always found that part of the story a bit puzzling. Why did Moroni visit Joseph Smith three times to convey the same information? It seems like kind of a random detail for Joseph to include in his history. But as I’ve been pondering this subject, I started to notice a pattern throughout scripture. You might be able to add to this list (please do!), but here’s what I’ve noticed so far.
Joseph hasn’t been the only prophet to receive the same heavenly message three consecutive times. Take a look at what happened to the apostle Peter in Acts 10:
[Peter] sawopened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or spake unto him again the second time, What God hath , that call not thou . This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.. And the voice
Acts 10:11-16 (emphasis added)
There it is again. Heavenly communication repeated three times. Peter even re-states this aspect of his vision in the very next chapter:
And this was done three times: and all were drawn up again into heaven.
The Nephites’ experience
Before the resurrected Christ visits the Nephites, God calls to them three times.
And it came to pass that while they were thus conversing one with another, they heard aas if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard; and it was not a harsh voice, neither was it a loud voice; nevertheless, and notwithstanding it being a voice it did them that did hear to the center, insomuch that there was no part of their frame that it did not cause to quake; yea, it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.
And it came to pass that again they heard the voice, and theyit not. And again the third time they did hear the voice, and did their ears to hear it; and their eyes were towards the sound thereof; and they did look steadfastly towards heaven, from whence the sound came.
And behold, the third time they did understand the voice which they heard; and it said unto them: Behold my, whom I am well pleased, in whom I have glorified my name—hear ye him.
3 Nephi 11:3-7 (emphasis added)
In the previous experience we looked at (Peter and the vision of the four-footed beasts), we saw that initially, Peter flat-out disagreed with the vision. “Not so, Lord,” is his initial reply. He failed to understand. As the vision was repeated, hopefully he gained more understanding.
Similarly, it took the Nephites three times to fully understand God’s voice emanating from heaven.
Another Peter experience
The “three” motif shows up again in Acts when the resurrected Christ appears to the apostles on the shores of the Galilean Sea. When Peter recognizes Christ’s call, he throws himself over the side of his fishing vessel and swims to shore. The disciples enjoy a meal of bread and fish before Christ has this discussion with Peter:
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, my sheep.
He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, my .
John 21:15-17 (emphasis added)
In addition to exemplifying another case of “three-ness,” this repetition must have also stung Peter a bit, as it may have recalled to his mind the three times he denied the Savior before the crucifixion.
Third time’s a charm
I’m not totally sure why three is the magic number in these scenarios. In Christendom, “three” denotes a certain divine completeness, but my guess is that repetition was used in these scenarios simply for practical purposes. Moroni was saying something very important. He wanted to make sure Joseph understood. In the case of Peter’s vision, the introduction of Christ to the Nephites, and Peter’s personal discussion with the Savior, the Lord wanted to make sure His message really sunk in.
Previously my response to that verse in Joseph Smith History has been one of confusion. But in the context of other important scriptural angelic visitations, it’s par for the course. In fact, in a small way, this little detail even strengthens my testimony of the authenticity of Joseph’s interaction with Moroni. In turn, this strengthens my testimony of The Book of Mormon and its overarching purpose: “the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God.”