As Christ was led to be crucified we read:
Luke 23:27 And there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him.
28 But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.
29 For, behold the days are coming , in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck.
31 For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?
We like to speak of “all mankind” and spurn at any sort of division, especially any division of different groups as righteous or unrighteous. That such divisions are morally wrong has been hammered into us throughout our childhood.
But that is not the doctrine of the scriptures. There are Israelites, and there are Gentiles. Jacob was given the covenant like to that of his father and grandfather, namely that Heavenly Father’s most righteous spirit children would be born into his posterity. Consequently, less righteous spirit children are born out of his posterity.
When Christ speaks of a green tree and a dry, he is speaking of Isreal, which is a green tree, and of the gentiles, which are dry tree. He is saying “If the Father’s more righteous spirit children have done such cruel things to their God, what sort of things will his less righteous spirit children do to you when they come to destroy you?” He is warning them of cruelty they will experience when the Romans, who were gentiles, would come to destroy Jerusalem about 40 years later.
When the Jews rejected Christ then the gospel was taken to the gentiles as a result. This was the time of the gentiles. The whole of the great apostasy is part of the time of the gentiles, for when the gospel was taken from Israel then the gospel was put into the care of the gentiles. And what did the gentiles do? Did they have prophets rise up among them and call the people to repentance? Israel fell into stages of apostasy many times, but there were always a few righteous ones the Lord could raise up as prophets to the people. Do we read of gentile prophets coming during the dark ages? No.
In the hands of the gentiles, the gospel did very poorly. This is no surprise. Abraham was given a covenant that the most righteous spirit children would be born into his posterity. As Israel was scattered to all nations then some Israelites rose up among the gentile nations and brought about the restoration. We assume that Christoffer Columbus and the founders were among these Israelites, for they were men ordained of God from before the foundation of the world and enjoyed at times the pure inspiration of the Holy Ghost with remarkably little truth for them to go on in their important roles. Certainly Joseph Smith was a pure blooded Israelite. And now the gospel is had in all the earth among the gentiles.
But mostly, the gentiles haven’t really done much with the gospel. As in Christ’s parable, since the nobles would not accept the invitation to the marriage of the king’s son then other guests have been gathered out of the streets, even beggars, that the marriage may be furnished with guests. But those guests, the gentiles, have not done much with the gospel.
As Joseph Smith explained “Thus after this chosen family had rejected Christ and His proposals, the heralds of salvation said to them, “Lo we turn unto the Gentiles;” and the Gentiles received the covenant, and were grafted in from whence the chosen family were broken off: but the Gentiles have not continued in the goodness of God, but have departed from the faith that was once delivered to the Saints, and have broken the covenant in which their fathers were established (see Isaiah 24:5); and have become high-minded, and have not feared; therefore, but few of them will be gathered with the chosen family. Have not the pride, high-mindedness, and unbelief of the Gentiles, provoked the Holy One of Israel to withdraw His Holy Spirit from them, and send forth His judgments to scourge them for their wickedness? This is certainly the case.”
The fullness of the gentiles is now coming to its end. When the gentiles reject the gospel, then it will be taken from them. Then the choice lands of Israel will be returned to Israel and taken out of the hands of the gentiles.
Part of this was stated nicely by the Savior
3 Nephi 16:10 And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischeifs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them.
The other part is found in scripture, but put forth with great clarity by Joseph Smith: “And now I am prepared to say by the authority of Jesus Christ, that not many years shall pass away before the United States shall present such a scene of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the history of our nation; pestilence, hail, famine, and earthquake will sweep the wicked of this generation from off the face of the land, to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel from the north country.” The prophesied return from the “north country” is not a literal return from the north, but a reference to the fact that the ancient country of Israel we refer to as the 10 tribes was destroyed and taken captive and scattered by countries north from Israel. It simply means “returned from all the places they have been scattered to”.
Incidentally, it should be noted that when the gentiles reject the gospel it will be no pretty picture. Christ’s warning “If they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in a dry” apply just as well to the days when the gentiles will reject the gospel. His question is once again worthy of consideration, as the fulness of the gentiles is coming to its close as we see the rejection of the gospel by the gentiles as a swelling tsunami wave gaining momentum, anxious with wrath to destroy those among them who not desist in calling only good good and in calling evil evil.
So after the gentiles reject the gospel, and the gospel is taken from among the gentiles, then the lands of Israel (which includes much, if not all, of North America, and possibly even all of South America), will be cleared of gentiles by the Lord, and Israel will return to her lands. How? Well, as Joseph Smith put it, it will be by “pestilence, hail, famine, and earthquake” which will “sweep the wicked of this generation off the face of the land, to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel.”
It is worth noting that the “lost tribes” are lost in the sense that they are lost to our knowledge. After all, the southern kingdom of 2 tribes was called Judah, but the most prominent tribe of northern kingdom of 10 tribes was Ephraim. So if you know any members of the tribe of Ephraim you have found some of the lost 10 tribes.
The covenants of the Israelites and the disparity between the promises made to the Israelites and to the gentiles goes deeper than we know, as Christ explained. For Christ said:
3 Nephi 15:22 And they understood me not, for they supposed it had been the Gentiles; for they understood not that the Gentiles should be converted through their preaching.
23 And they understood me not that I said they shall hear my voice; and they understood me not that the Gentiles should not at any time hear my voice—that I should not manifest myself unto them save it were by the Holy Ghost.
What does this mean? It means that just as Christ swore in his wrath that the ancient Isrealites would not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, so also none of the the gentiles will enter into his rest. For how can they enter into his rest if they cannot hear his voice? How can their calling and election be made sure and they receive the second comforter if “the Gentiles should not at any time hear my voice”. In fact, it is of the faithful member gentiles that Christ is speaking when he says the words “the Gentiles should not at any time hear my voice – that I should not manifest myself unto them save it were by the Holy Ghost”. He is saying those faithful member gentiles cannot be his other sheep that will hear his voice, for the gentiles shall not at any time hear his voice.
So Christ differentiates very clearly between the gentiles and the Israelites.
But those who were most righteous spiritually were born into Jacob’s posterity. They do so by covenant. God will not say to them “you were a very righteous spirit but I will not give you your covenants”, they must be born as children of the covenant.
As a side note, you may object that earlier I said the gospel is in all the earth. You may say it isn’t in “all the earth” because every country doesn’t have it. But the dominions of the saints were ever small, and the Lord doesn’t always measure by our political lines. On a map of the earth, there are large holes with no church presence, but the gospel has gone forth around the globe as never before since the beginning. It will not actually “fill the earth” in either the sense of Joseph Smith’s famous quotation or in the sense of Daniel’s vision until some time into the millenium, for we read from Joseph Smith:
“Christ and the resurrected Saints will reign over the earth during the thousand years. They will not probably dwell upon the earth, but will visit it when they please, or when it is necessary to govern it. There will be wicked men on the earth during the thousand years. The heathen nations who will not come up to worship will be visited with the judgments of God, and must eventually be destroyed from the earth.”
Thus there will be heathen nations in the early parts of the millennium. But they will eventually be destroyed unless they repent and come up to worship the one true God. That is part of what it means that Christ will claim his place as king.
Our mental picture of the second coming and millennium is mostly deeply wrong. It would be much more correct, and fit the scriptures quite a bit better, if we followed President Ezra Taft Benson’s advice and looked at the events of 3rd Nephi as a miniature narrative similar to the second coming. Christ destroyed many of the Nephite and Lamanite cities for their wickedness. Yes, Christ appeared to his saints, but only after they were scourged and truly became faithful enough for him to appear to them, for the scriptures say:
Ehter 12:7 For it was by faith that Christ showed himself unto our fathers, after he had risen from the dead; and he showed not himself unto them until after they had faith in him; wherefore, it must needs be that some had faith in him, for he showed himself not unto the world.
When Christ did appear to the Nephites, there were still many Nephites who were wicked, and who sought to kill the three Nephites in diverse ways. Yes, he slew many of the wicked before his coming, but there were many who were left. And he appeared first to the righteous, but even that was only after they had sufficient faith for him to appear to them. And that can happen only when they, as individuals, had prepared sufficient for him to appear to them.
It seems likely, when they were all converted, that he may have appeared to all of them at once. But that is not what he did at first.