Section 7: Translation of the Parchment of John
As Joseph and Oliver were translating the Book of Mormon, they came to references of translated beings such as Alma and Moses in the Book of Alma and the three Nephites in 3 Nephi. The beloved apostle John was also mentioned. Joseph and Oliver had occasion to discuss this ancient apostle. Perhaps discussion between the two of them was also stimulated by one of the most frequently misunderstood passages in all the scripture, John 21:20-23, in which the resurrected Lord indicated that his beloved apostle John will not taste of death but instead will be translated. This passage of scripture has been debated for centuries among the various Christian sects with some scholars saying that he indeed died and was buried at Ephesus; while others believe he still walks the earth. A third school of thought states that even though he was buried at Ephesus, he is not really dead but simply sleeps in the grave until the second coming of the Savior. A difference of opinion arose between Joseph and Oliver as to whether John did or did not actually die. Oliver felt that he did die, and Joseph held that he did not. In order to resolve this question, Joseph inquired of the Lord through the Urim and Thummim and received this magnificent revelation. Joseph recorded that “during the month of April, I continued to translate, and he to write, with little cessation, during which time we received several revelations. A difference of opinion arising between us about the account of John the Apostle, mentioned in the New Testament [John 21:20-23] as to whether he died or continued to live, we mutually agreed to settle it by the Urim and Thummim and the following is the word which we received” (HC, 1:35-36).
Joseph had splashed onto his consciousness an actual parchment, handwritten by John himself. Joseph did not actually have possession of the parchment, but rather, through the process of revelation he discerned the parchment and was given the translation of it. Joseph learned that John did not die but was translated.
The historical setting for the conversation recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 7 is the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, or Galilee. According to the New Testament, on this occasion the Savior ate fish with the disciples and instructed Peter to feed his sheep (see John 21:9-17). Peter then asked the Savior what the apostle John would do and received an ambiguous answer—at least it is ambiguous as it is now recorded in John’s gospel (see John 21:20-23).
For a more thorough discussion of translated beings than is found here, see Doctrine of Translation in Ye Shall Know of the Doctrine, volume 2, chapter 17.
A shorter version of section 7 was first published in the 1833 Book of Commandments with a heading that stated it was “translated from parchment, written and hid up” by John the Revelator. Verses 6 and 7 were added to the text of section 7 in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants under the supervision of the prophet
Joseph Smith, and the wording of other verses was revised at that time by the Prophet. Because Joseph worked on the Joseph Smith Translation after section 7 was received, it may be that he obtained additional insights on John 21:20-23 from that labor, which he then added to this revelation in the 1835 edition.
D&C 7 Translation of the parchment of John
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.
verse 1 Section 7 explains that in the episode recorded in John 21, Jesus had asked his apostles what they desired of him in much the same way that he later asked his American disciples (see 3 Nephi 28:1-12). While Peter asked to come speedily to Christ in his kingdom, John wanted to keep working on the earth to bring more souls to Christ. John was therefore allowed to remain upon the earth until the second coming to minister to those who would be heirs of salvation.
“John, my beloved” The Bible nowhere explicitly identifies the “beloved disciple” as the apostle John, though that has been the traditional understanding of the term for centuries. Only here and in 3 Nephi 28:6 is that identification made explicit in the scriptures.
2 And I said unto him: Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.
verse 2 To possess “power over death” does not, of course, mean that a person will never die. All must die (see 1 Corinthians 15:22). For one who has power over death, death is held in abeyance according to the will of God.
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.
verses 1-3 It is interesting to note the similarities between this conversation between John and Jesus and the conversation between the Savior and the three Nephite apostles who also wished to “tarry” (see 3 Nephi 28:1, 4-7).
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.
verse 4 Peter’s desire was to pass through both death and the spirit world to become a resurrected, celestial being in the kingdom of God. It was in this glorious condition that Peter later appeared to Joseph and Oliver (see D&C 27:12).
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.
verse 5 “I say unto thee, Peter, this was a good desire” Sometimes people read jealous motives into Peter’s question about John’s future, when it is perhaps more likely that Peter was afraid he had asked for the wrong thing. The Lord reassured Peter that his request was a good one, but that John desired to do a greater work upon the earth before he came to Christ in his kingdom.
“a greater work” John’s desire to do “a greater work” does not necessarily mean a greater work than Peter’s in some competitive sense. It may simply mean a greater work than John himself had done so far, without any implied comparison to Peter’s request.
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.
verse 6 “he shall minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation who dwell on the earth” John’s extended ministry will be to those who live on this earth, including the lost tribes of Israel (see D&C 77:11, 14). This should dampen any speculation that the lost tribes may not be upon the earth (see also 110:11). How has John accomplished this grand prophecy? John’s written prophecy has gone forth widely among the nations. He is the author of five books of the Bible including the Gospel of John, three epistles, and the book of Revelation. And who are “those who shall be heirs of salvation”? These are the descendants of Abraham who are faithful in keeping the Lord’s commandments. Also included are those not of Abraham’s descent who are brought into Abraham’s family by adoption. That is, they are allowed into the House of Israel through baptism and by remaining faithful to their covenants.
Joseph Smith gave us further insight concerning John’s ministry. Joseph taught that John’s mission was to prepare the ten tribes of Israel for the final gathering (see D&C 77:14). At a conference of the Church held in June 1831, Joseph Smith said that, “John the Revelator was then among the ten tribes of Israel who had been led away by Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, to prepare them for their return from their long dispersion” (HC, 1:176). It is not necessary to assume, however, that the ten tribes know who they are or that they know John by his biblical identity. It is only certain that wherever they are and whatever they know, he is among them and is working to prepare them to receive the fulness of the gospel and to witness the second coming of the Savior. John also ministered to the Prophet Joseph and Oliver Cowdery in 1829 when he assisted Peter and James in the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood (D&C 27:12). In addition, Heber C. Kimball recorded an appearance of John in the Kirtland Temple:
When the Prophet Joseph had finished the endowments of the First Presidency, the Twelve, and the Presiding Bishops, the First Presidency proceeded to lay hands upon each one of them to seal and confirm the anointing; and at the close of each blessing the whole of the quorums responded to it with a loud shout of Hosanna! Hosanna! etc.
While these things were being attended to, the beloved disciple John was seen in our midst by the Prophet Joseph, Oliver Cowdery, and others (Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, 91-92).
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.
verse 7 “I will make thee to minister for him and for thy brother James” The Lord is still speaking to Peter, who will minister for John and James in some unspecified manner. The three of them together will hold the keys of the priesthood unto the second coming. When one who holds the keys bestows them upon another, the former does not cease to hold them. Rather, he lengthens the chain of authority by another link. Christ presently holds all the keys, but so do Peter, James, and John, on whom Christ bestowed them, and so also does the prophet Joseph Smith, on whom these three bestowed the same keys.
There is an apparent error in this verse. The Lord is addressing Peter and refers to James as Peter’s brother. James was the brother of John. Peter’s brother was Andrew. This is either a mistake, or perhaps James is referred to as Peter’s brother in the gospel sense.
“unto you three I will give this power and the keys of this ministry” Exactly what are the keys held by Peter, James, and John? “The keys of the ministry which John says were given to Peter, James, and himself constituted the authority of Presidency of the Church in their dispensation. These keys were given at the transfiguration to these three apostles, and they in turn gave them to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in this dispensation (D&C 2;7:12-13; 128:20)” (Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:49).
8 Verily I say unto you, ye shall both have according to your desires, for ye both joy in that which ye have desired.
- Michael J. Preece