In the Doctrine and Covenants we read “And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live” (84:19-22).
Both critics and some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have looked at these verses of scripture and have asked the question, “If it is true that you have to have the greater priesthood in order to see the face of God and live, then how did Joseph Smith see God the Father and God the Son without the priesthood and not die?”
The problem with this question is that it misinterprets what the Lord has said. These verses of scripture do not say that a person must have the greater or Melchezedek priesthood in order to see the face of God or else they cannot remain alive in the flesh. What it does say is that without the “ordinances” of the greater priesthood “the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh.” In other words, it is necessary for men, while living in the flesh, to have the ordinances of God administered to them by the authority of the Melchezedeck priesthood in order for them to have the power of godliness made “manifest” unto them. If men do not partake of these ordinances while in the flesh then they cannot “see the face of God, even the Father, and live.”
Notice, that this statement does not say that those who see the face of God before partaking of the ordinances of the Melchezedek priesthood will perish while they are living “in the flesh.” It specifically and clearly states that those who have not received the ordinances of the greater priesthood while in the flesh cannot see God and that they will not “live.” Period. There is nothing else added to the end of this sentence.
So the real question becomes, what does the Lord means by the word “live?” Does He mean to remain alive in the flesh on the earth or does He mean to live with God in heaven to behold His face throughout all eternity?
The Bible, in various ways, repeatedly tells us that the wages of sin is “death” (Romans 6:23). Jesus proclaimed that He came to give men eternal “life” (John 10:28). Thus, to live with God eternally is what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. To live eternally apart from God is “death.” What the Lord is telling us in D&C 84 is that there is more to inheriting eternal life than just believing in Jesus. We must also receive the ordinances of the Melchezedek priesthood in order to have life with God. Those who do not receive these ordinances, no matter how much they profess a belief in Christ or how many other commandments they keep, will not be permitted to “see the face of God, even the Father” because they will not live where He lives.
To fully understand and appreciate what the Lord is telling us in these verses of scripture we need to read the eighteen verses that proceed this statement. But before we do, there are two things we first need to understand.
The first is our relationship with God. As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we believe that God is literally our Father. That is, He begat us as spirit sons and daughters where we lived with Him in a celestial environment, known as heaven, before coming to earth. The reason why we came to earth was to be tried and tested to see if we would keep the commandments that God gives us (Abraham 3:25). If we fail to keep those commandments we sin and thereby cut ourselves off from the presence of God. Therefore, our Father in heaven has provided a Savior for us so we could repent of our sins and have them removed as though we had never committed them. Those who strive to remain faithful to God’s commandments then have the opportunity not only to return and live with God but to live like God. That is, we can become exalted beings and be able to do all that God can do (for a more in-depth look at this subject read, “Ye are Gods” ). Thus, the very reason why we came to earth was to prepare ourselves to some day inherit all that God has (Rev. 21:7).
The second thing we need to understand is what God means when He talks about “the authority of the priesthood” and “the power of godliness.”
The word “godliness” has reference to more than just the attributes that define a godly man such as love, kindness, long-suffering, virtue, honesty, integrity, justice, mercy and other similar traits. While it is true that a person must possess these qualities to become like God that doesn’t automatically make a person god-like. The reason why our Father in heaven is God is because He has the ability to control the powers of heaven. He can command the elements of nature to come together to form an earth and have those elements obey Him. In fact, He has the power to issue any kind of command and have it obeyed. And it is that power that makes our Father in heaven God. Without that power He could not be God no matter how righteous He was.
But that ability didn’t come to Him just because of the way He lives His life. He is able to control the powers of heaven because He has received the authority to do so. And that authority resides in the priesthood.
Perhaps we can explain this principle by way of an illustration. A car has the power to take a person long distances in relative comfort and do so much faster than the person is capable of doing by themselves. Under the hood of a car is a power supply called a battery which powers all the electrical systems, including the starter for the motor. The engine itself is another power supply that enables the car to move at a rapid rate of speed. But all of that power is completely useless without a key that will turn the ignition switch. Therefore, it is the key that enables a person to have access to the power of a car.
In the same way, the powers of heaven are accessible only to those who have the key, or in other words, the authority to operate them. And that authority or key to the powers of heaven belong to the priesthood. Therefore, only those who hold the priesthood have the authority to access the powers of heaven.
But, there is more to driving a car than just having a key to unlock the power under the hood. Once the power has been turned on a person must know how to properly control that power. Therefore, before a person is allowed to personally own the key to a car they first must demonstrate that they know how to drive according to the rules of the state they live in. Thus, when a person legally possess a car key it symbolizes that they have both the knowledge and skill to properly drive a car. The authority to use that key to actually be able to drive a car comes from the state in the form of a driver’s license.
And the same applies to the priesthood. Before a person is given the authority to access the powers of heaven they must first have shown that they are capable of properly managing that power according to the rules of the state they live in, whether that state is on earth or in heaven. But especially in the state of existence known as heaven, when someone holds the priesthood it is a symbol that they have acquired both the knowledge and skill to use that authority wisely.
However, just because someone has a car key doesn’t mean they can get into any car and drive it. In order to drive a particular car they have to possess the key that will unlock the power of that particular vehicle. Perhaps we can use a different example to illustrate this point. A church building has many doors and a number of them have locks on them. All the outside doors have locks, as does the library door, the janitor’s closet, the sports closet, various supply closets as well as the bishop’s office. Whereas someone may have a key to get into the building, that doesn’t give them access to any of the other locked doors. The librarian will have a key to get into the library but may not have a key to get into the building. The Relief Society President may have a key to get into the building and into her supply closet but cannot get into the Young Men/Young Women’s sport’s closet or the library. On the other hand, the bishop has a master key that will allow him access to any locked door within the building. Thus, the keys that a person has received designates what authority they have within the church.
In the same way, just because a person holds the priesthood doesn’t mean they have access or authority to all of the powers of heaven. There are various levels of authority within the kingdom of God and the level of a person’s authority within God’s kingdom is represented by the “keys” they hold. Our Father in heaven is God not just because He holds the priesthood but because He holds all the keys of the priesthood which allow Him access to all the powers of heaven. Thus, when the scriptures talk about “the powers of godliness” they are referring to that power which enables someone to be God.
But if that is so, then how does someone acquire all “the authority of the priesthood” that enables them to possess “the powers of godliness” which is the power of godhood? That is what the Lord explains to us in Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Therefore, let’s take a closer examination of what He has to say.
Beginning in verse 3 Jesus Christ commands that a temple should be built on a parcel of land “in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri” and that this land was revealed to Joseph Smith by “the finger of the Lord.” In verse 5 He further states that this temple “shall be built unto the Lord,” or, in other words, it is to be the House of the Lord. And when it is completed “a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house.”
Imagine someone wanting to have a house built for them. The first thing they would do is go out and select the land they want it built on. When the site had been purchased the person would then hire a contractor to build the house for them. Often times, the owner of the house will tell the contractor just how they want the house to look. They might instruct the contractor on such things as where to put the bathrooms, where to put the laundry room, how many bedrooms and what size they are to be along with other such details. As the contractor erects the walls, puts in the plumbing and does the wiring he does so the way he has been instructed by the owner of the house. But, when the house is finally completed, it belongs, not to the person who built it but to the person for whom it was built.
In the same way, the temple is literally the house of the Lord. It is a place where God can come and dwell among His people. As such, it was God who selected the land where He wanted His house to be built, then commissioned His saints to be the contractor to build it. The Lord also told the contractors exactly how He wanted the house to be constructed including such things as how many rooms were to be in it, what they were to look like, and what design He wanted them to have. As such, whenever the saints build a temple they do so according the plan the Lord had given them, which is the same way the Israelites constructed their temple (Exodus 25:9). Then, when it is completed, it is dedicated it to God since it is His house, not those who built it. Christ also said that when the temple was completed that the glory of the Lord would then fill it meaning it would become a place fit for God to live in.
Then, in the very next verse Jesus apparently seems to change the subject rather abruptly because He begins to talk about Moses and the priesthood. In fact, for the next eleven verses He gives a genealogy back to “Adam, who was the first man,” listing those who held the priesthood and from whom they received it. However, the priesthood was a very important part of the temple (i.e., tabernacle) that God had commanded Moses to build, so rather than changing subjects, what Jesus is doing is explaining why He is commanding His saints to build a house “unto the Lord,” as we shall see more clearly a little later.
Then, after giving us this history of the priesthood, in verses 17 and 18 Jesus tells us, “Which priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations, and is without beginning of days or end of years. And the Lord confirmed a priesthood also upon Aaron and his seed, throughout all their generations, which priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.”
There are a number of things we learn from this short but important statement. The first is that “the church of God” has existed “in all generations,” from the time of Adam to the time of Moses and beyond. In other words, it isn’t enough for men to believe in God but whenever there is a such a belief there is also an organization known as a “church” that has been established among them. What this tells us is that this was true even as far back as the days of Adam, meaning that from the very beginning of man’s existence God always had His church among His people. Thus we see that this is always how God deals with His children.
Yet another thing we learn is that whenever and wherever there is God’s true church, the priesthood is always a part of it. This is what Jesus means when He says, “Which priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations.” Regardless of which generation we might talk about, the priesthood is an essential part of God’s church. And there is an important reason why this is so, as He is about to explain to us.
But, before He does, there are two other pieces of information about the priesthood He shares with us. One is that the priesthood is “after the holiest order of God.” What this means is that the priesthood in the church is the same priesthood that God holds, which priesthood is what enables our Father to be God. Thus, the priesthood in the church is the same as that which our Father in heaven has which is “the power of godliness.”
The second thing He explains to us is that the priesthood is “without beginning of days or end of years.” What this means is that the priesthood is eternal. That is to say it was neither created nor will it ever cease to exist. It has no beginning therefore it can have no end.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we believe that God, our Father, is an exalted man and that the course we are following to become exalted to the status of a god is that which our Father in heaven followed to become exalted Himself. In other words, there was a time when our Father in heaven was not God. This is why it is crucial to understanding our relationship with our Father in heaven because it is different from what the Christian faith today believes. They teach that God has always existed forever, that nothing existed before Him, and that there is nothing we can do to become like Him. And it is because of this misconception that they misunderstand the basic concept of the priesthood.
God did not invent the priesthood. The reason why our Father is God is because He possesses the fullness of the priesthood with all of the keys that go with it. Without the priesthood neither He nor we could become exalted to the status of godhood because without the priesthood we could not control the powers of heaven. Therefore, it is the priesthood that allows a person to be God. Without this priesthood, no matter how righteous a person may be, they cannot become exalted. Yet, at the same time, without being righteous no one is able to use the priesthood to control the powers of heaven, even if the priesthood were to be conferred upon them. That is why the two are inseparably connected (see D&C 121:36-37). Thus, the reason why our Father in heaven is God is because He is a righteous Being who holds the eternal priesthood.
Then in verse 19 Jesus tells us, “And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.”
This statement is perhaps the clearest explanation of the priesthood in all of holy writ. But to understand why we need to have a correct understanding of who we are, what our relationship with God is, and why we are here on earth.
The word “gospel” means “good news.” Before the earth was created our Father in heaven gathered us, His children, together and gave us the good news of how we could become like Him. Upon hearing this news, we shouted for joy (Job 28:7). But then we were given some not-so-good news which was that to become like God we first had to learn the difference between good and evil. The problem with this is that if we succumbed to evil even just once we not only wouldn’t become exalted but we would lose even the glory we once had. And the reason why is because there is a law that decrees that no unclean thing can exist in heaven.
God didn’t invent this law. It is an eternal principle that God obeys.
Heaven is defined as a place of complete righteousness, therefore if anything unrighteous should exist there, even in the least degree, heaven would not be a place of compete righteousness. That’s no different than saying that something can’t be called “clean” if it has any dirt on it because “clean,” by definition means something that isn’t dirty. Even if an object has just one speck of dirt on it, it can’t truly be called “clean.” Therefore, if we were to commit just one sin then, by eternal law, we could not live in heaven because heaven is a place that is absolutely free of sin.
When we use the term “law” we are not referring to something that someone arbitrarily decides what should or shouldn’t be. This kind of law is something that has always existed and always will exist. Like the priesthood, it is eternal. This is the same sense of the word we use when someone talks about the “laws of nature.” Man didn’t create these laws. Instead he learns about them and then, using that knowledge, seeks to use them to his advantage.
For example, one of the laws of nature is gravity. This law operates exactly the same way throughout the entire expanse of the universe. As such, it is a universal law. Just because man may not like this law, he can’t just decide to do away with it or disregard it without suffering a negative consequence. But, by using other natural laws, man has found a way to circumvent the law of gravity. That is how he is able to keep a plane weighing thousands of pounds in the air without it crashing to the ground. Yet, just because an airplane is able to stay in the air it hasn’t done away with or violated the law of gravity. Quite the contrary. The law of gravity still remains just as effective as ever no matter how high or how long an airplane may fly. Man has merely found a way to temporarily overcome the effects of gravity.
But, in order for this to happen there are very strict rules or precise requirements that have to be met. The wing of the plane has to have just the right shape and size, the plane has to be traveling at a certain minimum speed, and there has to be the right amount of constant power applied to keep the plane moving at that speed. And it wasn’t man who decided what these requirements should be. Instead, an airplane is able to remain in the air only because man has discovered what these laws of nature are and obeys them. Should any of these strict requirements be violated the plane will immediately be subject to the full law of gravity.
The same situation exists in baking a cake. There are certain ingredients that must be put together in certain amounts and then baked in an oven at a certain temperature for a certain length of time. If any of these requirements are not met then the cake will not turn out as desired. The same is true of chemists who mix chemicals together. A molecule of water is made up of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen. But, if you combine one atom of hydrogen with two atoms of oxygen instead of having water you create a molecule called hydroperoxyl radical. In order to make a molecule of water, hydrogen and oxygen must be combined in a very precise proportion. That is the law of nature and man didn’t invent it. He merely discovered it and is able to use this knowledge to his advantage.
In the same way, God doesn’t decide what the laws of heaven are. Instead, He understands them and uses them to accomplish His purposes. Whereas there is a law that says nothing unclean can dwell in heaven, God knows of another law that will allow us to sin and not only remain in heaven but actually become exalted there. However, for this to happen there are some very strict and precise requirements that must be met.
There is an eternal law that allows someone to take upon themselves the sins of another and then pay the penalty for those sins. However, in order for that to take place, the person taking upon them the sins of another must be sinless themselves. In that way, the stain of sin can be removed from the sinner and they become “clean” as though they had never sinned. Since they are now legally “clean” according to the eternal laws they can then legally enter into heaven. But in doing this the law of heaven has not been done away with.
But, in order for this to happen we must follow even more specific rules. Some of these include repentance on the part of the one who has sinned. A person must also be baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, and obey other requirements if they hope to become exalted. The good news we were given in heaven before the earth was created was how we can be saved from the negative consequences of our own sins and thereby still have the opportunity to become exalted. That’s why we refer to this news as the gospel of salvation.
But notice that Jesus said, “And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel.” The word “administer” means “to manage, direct, control, govern, oversee, run, lead, handle, or be in charge of.” In other words, it is the priesthood that manages, controls, governs, or oversees the gospel of salvation. That is why the “priesthood continueth in the church of God in all generations” because without it there could be no salvation. It is the priesthood – which is the key that allows the holder of it access to the powers of heaven - that makes possible the good news of salvation. And that is why there is a “church of God in [each] generation” because the church is the means by which the priesthood is administered to men in the flesh.
Then, Jesus added that the priesthood “holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.”
A mystery is something that is unknown. To many people, television is a mystery because they have no idea how it works. All they know is that when they turn on the power they see a moving picture and hear the corresponding sound. But, once a person is taught how a television works, then it is no longer a mystery to them. In the same way, the kingdom of God is a mystery to many people because they don’t understand what heaven is like or how we get there or what happens to us once we do get there. The priesthood is the key that unlocks that mystery. And it does that by giving us “the knowledge of God.” Once we have the knowledge of godliness then it is no more a mystery how we can live with and become like God, our Father.
But how does the priesthood give us this knowledge? Christ explained, “Therefore, [it is] in the ordinances thereof, [that] the power of godliness is [made] manifest. [For] without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood [to perform these ordinances], the power of godliness is not [made] manifest unto men [while they live] in the flesh; For without [these ordinances] no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.”
The word “manifest” means “to make obvious, apparent, to become clear, visible, discernable, evident, noticeable, transparent, understandable, or knowable” What Jesus is telling us is that it is through receiving the ordinances of the priesthood that the knowledge of God is made clear, understandable, apparent and obvious to men while they live here on earth.
The apostle Paul explained this same principle when he wrote, “the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ”(1 Cor. 2:11-16).
One of the ordinances of the priesthood is receiving the Holy Ghost, which is the Spirit of God. When we receive this Spirit it teaches us the things of God. But when we don’t have the Holy Ghost to teach us these mysteries then we tend to view the things of God as being foolish. Thus, this ordinance is necessary to unlocking the mystery of godliness.
Another ordinance of the priesthood is baptism which is so essential for admittance into the kingdom of God that even Jesus Himself had to receive it. Since God holds the priesthood, in order for us to become like Him we too must hold the greater priesthood, “which [priesthood] is after the holiest order of God.” Even Christ Himself was ordained to this priesthood (Heb. 5:5,6). And we receive this priesthood through an ordinance.
However, none of these ordinances has the power to exalt us. Furthermore, all of these ordinances can be performed anywhere by anyone holding the priesthood. But in order to have access to “the powers of godliness” – which is the power of godhood - there are other ordinances that must be performed by “the authority of the priesthood.” However, these ordinances are so sacred that they cannot be performed just anywhere nor by just any ordinary holder of the priesthood. That is why the Lord commanded the saints at the beginning of this revelation to build a house unto Him because that is the place where these ordinances are to be performed.
The reason why Jesus went through such a long explanation of the importance of the priesthood was to explain to the saints in 1832 why it was necessary for them to build a temple. The temple would become the means by which they would receive the priesthood ordinances that would someday give them access to “the powers of godliness.” If they did not receive these ordinances while in the flesh then it will be impossible for them to “see the face of God, even the Father, and live” eternally with Him. Why? Because that is the law we must obey in order to gain access to “the powers of godliness.” And those who receive these higher ordinances will not only live with God but will become like Him.
This is the same message the Lord gave when He revealed that the celestial kingdom, “which excels in all things—[is] where God, even the Father, reigns upon his throne forever and ever… They who dwell in his presence are [those who belong to] the church of the Firstborn; and they see as they are seen, and know as they are known, having received of his fulness and of his grace; And he makes them equal in power, and in might, and in dominion” (D&C 76:92-95). This is the good news of salvation
But then, continuing in verse 23 of the 84th section of the D&C Jesus explained, “Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory. Therefore, he took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also; And the lesser priesthood continued, which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel.”
The very reason why God wanted Moses to build a tabernacle while the Israelites were still wandering in the desert after fleeing from Egyptian slavery was to give them these exalting ordinances as generations of men before them had received. And the reason why Jesus explained in verse 6 about Moses holding the priesthood was to show that he had the authority to perform these priesthood ordinances.
However, instead of appreciating what God was about to do for them, the Israelites turned their back on Him and hardened their hearts toward Him. Therefore, in His wrath, He swore that they would not enter into His rest, which can only happened by receiving the ordinances pertaining to exaltation. And the way He prevented them from entering into His rest was by taking Moses and most of the keys of the greater priesthood from among the Israelites. What He left them with were a few keys of the priesthood that allowed them only to perform the ordinances of baptism, the administration of angels, and the law of carnal commandments (vs 27).
But this was not an act of spiteful revenge on God’s part. Instead, since the Israelites weren’t spiritually ready to receive all that the Father was prepared to give them, He gave them only that which they were capable of handling at that time in hopes they would increase their spirituality to the point where they were sufficiently ready to receive the greater ordinances of the priesthood. Thus, it became a “preparatory gospel” to prepare them to eventually be worthy of receiving the full gospel.
Then, beginning in verse 33 the Lord said, “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. [and] they become… the elect of God.” The Lord went on to clarify what He meant by this saying, “All they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord… and he that receiveth me receiveth my Father. And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom, therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him. And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.” (verses 36-39).
Only those who have obtained the ordinances of the priesthood and who remain true and faithful to those priesthood ordinances will be sanctified (i.e., made holy) and become God’s elect people when their bodies are renewed at the time of the resurrection. Those who have met this requirement will receive all that God the Father has, including the powers of godliness that He Himself possesses. And the reason why they will be able to obtain that power is because that is what the oath and promise is which belongs to, or is associated with the priesthood.
But the Lord went on to warn, “And wo unto all those who come not unto this priesthood” (verse 42). Therefore, “give diligent heed to the words of eternal life” (verse 43).
When the Lord took the greater priesthood away from the Israelites He denied them the opportunity to receive the ordinances that lead to godhood. But the same is true of anyone who fails to come unto or receive these priesthood ordinances. They too are denied this blessing. Therefore, to inherit eternal life we must give diligent heed to the words of Christ, and what He has told us is that without receiving all the ordinances of the priesthood, no man can see the face of God and have eternal life.
When viewed in context and in light of the other scriptures, it is easy to see what Jesus meant when He said, “no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.” But, there are people today who cannot understand the mysteries of God and think that such revelations on priesthood ordinances are just so much foolishness. Yet that doesn’t change the truth that without receiving the ordinances thereof they will never live to participate in the powers of godliness.