Sunday musings 02-22-09

The words spoken by John the Baptist when he restored the authority of the Aaronic Priesthood to the earth are the subject of much confusion for many members of the Church. Here I will attempt to answer to the best of my ability some commonly asked questions surrounding his statement, which is recorded as Section 13 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In doing so I will carefully discriminate between the words of modern prophets and my own interpretations, which though reasonable (to me, anyway) do not represent the official position of the Church — if one exists — and as always are subject to change.

Here is the scripture:

Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.

When and where did this event take place?
Joseph Smith’s history notes it as taking place on May 15, 1829, near the bank of the Susquehanna River by Harmony, Pennsylvania. Here is a photo of our “best guess” of the actual site:

What were the circumstances by which this event took place?
Oliver Cowdery wrote, “After writing the account given of the Savior’s ministry to the remnant of the seed of Jacob, upon this continent, it was as easily to be seen, that amid the great strife and noise concerning religion, none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the gospel.” (See Bushman [2005], p. 74.) We can thus determine that the question arose at some point during the period of time Joseph translated what we today call 3 Nephi 11-28.

According to modern historian Richard L. Bushman, “Joseph said the question of authority disturbed them enough that they broke off the translation and went to the Susquehanna River to pray.” Lucy Smith said that “one morning they sat down to their work, as usual, and the first thing which presented itself through the Urim and Thummim, was a commandment for Joseph and Cowdery to repair to the water, and attend to the ordinance of Baptism.” (Bushman, p. 580, footnote 66.)

Joseph’s history records:

While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying [the words of the ordinance].

He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me.

Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me—after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.*

The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger, and baptized. (JS-H 1:68–72.)

Why was John the Baptist sent?
Insofar as we know, John was the last person to hold the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood (only) in the dispensation of the meridian of time. Both of his parents (Elizabeth and Zacharias) were of priestly descent through the lineage of Levi, a necessary precondition for his mission as the Presiding High Priest and living embodiment of the law of Moses — a literal and symbolic forerunner to Christ, who fulfilled the law of Moses and restored the greater priesthood authority to the earth.

What are priesthood keys?
Priesthood keys are the right to preside and grant their possessors the authority to personally administer and authorize others to perform a particular work. Because keys are the right of presidency, they are conferred upon brethren who are set apart as presidents of quorums: the deacons quorum president, teachers quorum president, bishop (serving as both president of the priests quorum and presiding Aaronic Priesthood holder in the ward), elders quorum president, stake president (serving as both president of the high priests quorum, which is organized on a stake level, and as presiding Melchizedek Priesthood holder in the stake), senior president of the Quorums of Seventy (organized on a general Church-wide level), President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the President of the Church, who is the only individual authorized to exercise all of the keys of the priesthood in their fulness.

Priesthood keys are not conferred upon brethren when either the Aaronic or Melchizedek Priesthoods are conferred upon them, or when they are ordained to any office within those two priesthoods. Rather, there are certain keys which belong to a particular priesthood or priesthood office and can only be conferred upon ones holding the requisite authority. I will explain this by use of examples.

The office of bishop is an office of the Aaronic Priesthood. A currently serving bishop of a ward has also been “set apart” for that purpose under the hands of a stake president, who at that time confers the appropriate keys (or the right to preside over all priesthood activity that occurs within the ward) upon the individual called. When a bishop is released, the keys he holds are conferred upon his successor, but he retains the office of bishop and may still be appropriately referred to after his release as “Bishop.” If he is called again to serve as bishop, he is not re-ordained to the office of bishop, but he keys he once held are restored when he is set apart by the stake president.

The language of the scriptures is also consistent with this idea. Note in the passage above that John refers to various keys as belonging to the priesthood, not to individuals who hold offices within it. We again note this language in D&C 107:18–20:

The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—

To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.

The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.

To get more directly to the point, an Aaronic Priesthood holder (regardless of office) does not automatically hold the keys to the ministering of angels and to administer in outward ordinances. A priesthood holder has the right to receive the ministering of angels in the course of his duty if his life is clean before the Lord. But keys are the right of presidency, to direct the Lord’s work and effect blessings in the lives of others. They are not given to every priesthood holder by default.

What does it mean to have “the keys of the ministering of angels”?
I really think Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed this doctrine in about as satisfying a way as it could be discussed. In a General Conference talk from October 1998 entitled “The Aaronic Priesthood and the Sacrament” (and I really recommend reading the entire thing) he said this:

In a closely related way, these ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood [the saving ordinance of baptism and the renewing ordinance of the sacrament] are also vital to the ministering of angels.

“The word ‘angel’ is used in the scriptures for any heavenly being bearing God’s message” (George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth, sel. Jerreld L. Newquist [1987], 54). The scriptures recite numerous instances where an angel appeared personally. Angelic appearances to Zacharias and Mary (see Luke 1) and to King Benjamin and Nephi, the son of Helaman (see Mosiah 3:2; 3 Ne. 7:17­18) are only a few examples. When I was young, I thought such personal appearances were the only meaning of the ministering of angels. As a young holder of the Aaronic Priesthood, I did not think I would see an angel, and I wondered what such appearances had to do with the Aaronic Priesthood.

But the ministering of angels can also be unseen. Angelic messages can be delivered by a voice or merely by thoughts or feelings communicated to the mind. President John Taylor described “the action of the angels, or messengers of God, upon our minds, so that the heart can conceive . . . revelations from the eternal world” (Gospel Kingdom, sel. G. Homer Durham [1987], 31).

Nephi described three manifestations of the ministering of angels when he reminded his rebellious brothers that (1) they had “seen an angel,” (2) they had “heard his voice from time to time,” and (3) also that an angel had “spoken unto [them] in a still small voice” though they were “past feeling” and “could not feel his words” (1 Ne. 17:45). The scriptures contain many other statements that angels are sent to teach the gospel and bring men to Christ (see Heb. 1:14; Alma 39:19; Moro. 7:25, 29, 31­32; D&C 20:35). Most angelic communications are felt or heard rather than seen.

How does the Aaronic Priesthood hold the key to the ministering of angels? The answer is the same as for the Spirit of the Lord.

In general, the blessings of spiritual companionship and communication are only available to those who are clean. As explained earlier, through the Aaronic Priesthood ordinances of baptism and the sacrament, we are cleansed of our sins and promised that if we keep our covenants we will always have His Spirit to be with us. I believe that promise not only refers to the Holy Ghost but also to the ministering of angels, for “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ” (2 Ne. 32:3). So it is that those who hold the Aaronic Priesthood open the door for all Church members who worthily partake of the sacrament to enjoy the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord and the ministering of angels.

This makes perfect sense on a number of levels. First, the ordinance of the sacrament is administered under the direction of the bishop, who holds the keys for administering the ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood for all members of the ward. (Indeed, in an earlier paragraph Elder Oaks states, “Both of these ordinances [baptism and sacrament] are officiated by holders of the Aaronic Priesthood under the direction of the bishopric, who exercise the keys of the gospel of repentance and of baptism and the remission of sins.”) Second, this explanation makes more natural sense than the idea that the keys of the ministering of angels is a right reserved for blessing members of the priesthood alone, because through the administration of the sacrament the door is opened to all who worthily partake to receive the constant companionship of the Spirit of the Lord, which includes the right to angelic ministration.

Though it’s a bit more of a stretch, it could also be argued that the administration of the home teaching program under the direction of the bishop is also instrumental in bringing holders of the priesthood (who in a sense could qualify as “ministering angels”) into the homes of ward members. The “stretch” comes because this does not directly involve administration of an ordinance.

What is the offering by the sons of Levi?
This is a more difficult question to answer, as the number of Church authorities who have commented on this scripture is limited to two or three. First we must answer the practical question: under what conditions would the Aaronic Priesthood be taken from the earth? Joseph Fielding Smith provides us with the most logical answer.

We may be sure that the Aaronic Priesthood will never be taken from the earth while mortality endures, for there will always be need for temporal direction and the performance of ordinances pertaining to ‘the preparatory Gospel.’ (Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:62.)

If we take a literal interpretation of the scripture, the following remarks (quoted from the Doctrine and Covenants institute student manual) by both Joseph Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith (his great-nephew) may be illuminating, if a little daunting:

“It is generally supposed that sacrifice was entirely done away when the Great Sacrifice [i.e.,] the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus was offered up, and that there will be no necessity for the ordinance of sacrifice in the future; but those who assert this are certainly not acquainted with the duties, privileges and authority of the Priesthood, or with the Prophets.

“The offering of sacrifice has ever been connected and forms a part of the duties of the Priesthood. It began with the Priesthood, and will be continued until after the coming of Christ, from generation to generation. . . .

“These sacrifices, as well as every ordinance belonging to the Priesthood, will, when the Temple of the Lord shall be built, and the sons of Levi be purified, be fully restored and attended to in all their powers, ramifications, and blessings. This ever did and ever will exist when the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood are sufficiently manifest; else how can the restitution of all things spoken of by the Holy Prophets be brought to pass. It is not to be understood that the law of Moses will be established again with all its rites and variety of ceremonies; this has never been spoken of by the prophets; but those things which existed prior to Moses’ day, namely, sacrifice, will be continued.” (Teachings, pp. 172–73.)

President Joseph Fielding Smith further explained that “we are living in the dispensation of the fulness of times into which all things are to be gathered, and all things are to be restored since the beginning. Even this earth is to be restored to the condition which prevailed before Adam’s transgression. Now in the nature of things, the law of sacrifice will have to be restored, or all things which were decreed by the Lord would not be restored. It will be necessary, therefore, for the sons of Levi, who offered the blood sacrifices anciently in Israel, to offer such a sacrifice again to round out and complete this ordinance in this dispensation. Sacrifice by the shedding of blood was instituted in the days of Adam and of necessity will have to be restored.

“The sacrifice of animals will be done to complete the restoration when the temple spoken of is built; at the beginning of the millennium, or in the restoration, blood sacrifices will be performed long enough to complete the fulness of the restoration in this dispensation. Afterwards sacrifice will be of some other character.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3:94.)

The difficulty with this interpretation, however, is that the timing of the necessary “offering” and the point at which the Aaronic Priesthood will be taken from the earth (the end of the Millennium, presumably) are separated by a period of at least 1,000 years. As stated earlier, no other General Authority has seen fit to comment on this particular interpretation.

A figurative interpretation of the scripture may prove more satisfying. If we assume “the sons of Levi” to be spiritual descendants and not literal ones, a phrase from the oath and covenant of the priesthood (D&C 84:33–42) comes into play:

For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods of which I have spoken, and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies.

They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God (D&C 84:33–34).

Backing up a verse earlier, the Lord confirms that these same sons of Moses and Aaron (remember, these brothers descended through the tribe of Levi) shall be the ones to “offer an acceptable offering and sacrifice in the house of the Lord” (D&C 84:31).

Writing to the Church in September 1842, Joseph expounded upon the nature of this acceptable offering:

Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand; and who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation (D&C 128:24).

According to this interpretation then, the sons of Moses and of Aaron are “the sons of Levi” whose “offering unto the Lord in righteousness” is to receive and record vicarious temple ordinances. Insofar as we know, this work (“offering”) will not be complete until the end of the Millennium, which coincides with the time we expect there to be no more need for the Aaronic Priesthood. This is because every member of the human family will have had the opportunity to receive the power and ordinances of the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood.

I’m not going to take a side as to which interpretation is more correct. As an imperfect human being seeking learning “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), it is important for me to note that multiple interpretations exist and that the Lord will sort it all out for us one day. But I will add that the second interpretation gives me more motivation to live righteously than the first.

Leave a Reply