IThe Lord has told us, "And I give unto you a commandment that you shall teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom . Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand" (D&C 88:77,78).
In the Spring of 1820 one early morning a young farm boy by the name of Joseph Smith went out to a grove of trees on his father's farm and knelt in prayer to know which of all the many different denominations at that time taught the true gospel of Jesus Christ. In answer to that prayer, both the Father and the Son appeared unto him and said to join none of them because they were all corrupt before Him.
From that time forth, the heavens were again opened and God communicated His will to mankind through the use of prophets. A prophet is defined as someone who is divinely authorized to speak for God. In other words, God reveals His will to a prophet who, in turn, reveals God's message to the world. It was through the prophet Joseph Smith, by revelation and commandment, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized and established in 1830. At the earthly head of this church is the President, who presides with two counselors. Directly under their authority are twelve apostles. The members of the LDS Church revere and sustain these fifteen men as prophets, seers, and revelators.
During his term as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith had many revelations from God that were written down in a book known as The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C). The term "scripture" is often defined as "the written word of God" or words "given by inspiration of God, [that] is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). Since the D&C contains the words of God that Joseph Smith received through divine inspiration, this book is considered as scripture by members of the LDS Church.
Another definition of a prophet is someone who receives revelation from God. That is to say, they receive information directly from God that has never been revealed before. This could be the foretelling of future events or the knowledge of things pertaining to past events, or the revealing of new truths, or things that are hidden, such as the thoughts of men. In this regard, the D&C is full of new revelation from God. It tells us of things that will happen in the future, of things that have happened in the past, including before the earth was created, it reveals new truths that have been unknown from the foundation of the earth and it reveals the evil designs hidden in the hearts of men.
As we look at the role of prophets in the Old Testament we see that Noah received a revelation concerning an impending future disaster. Both Abraham and Jacob received revelation concerning what would become of their posterity in the future and the effect they would have on the world. Moses spoke directly with God and received a revelation on a new law that has continued to be the foundation of most civilized countries today. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah foretold the destruction of Israel and their eventual return. The prophet Daniel interpreted a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar about the rise and fall of political empires down to the last days. The prophet Malachi prophesied about the coming of Elijah to turn the hearts of the father to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.
In the New Testament, we see the apostle Peter having a revelation during a dream concerning taking the gospel to the Gentiles. Saul had a vision on the way to Damascus where he saw the resurrected Christ. As an apostle he prophesied that after his death wolves would come in the church not sparing the flock, thereby foretelling the coming apostasy. The apostle John had a great revelation while in exile on the isle of Patmos that foretold of events that would take place all the way through the last resurrection.
In our day, the prophet Joseph Smith had revealed to him the Book of Mormon, which recounts the writings of numerous prophets who foretold the coming of Christ to the Nephites and gave us a greater understanding of His atonement. The Lord also revealed to Joseph Smith the knowledge of the three degrees of heaven, the principle of temples, the true understanding of the priesthood, what actually happened in the creation and in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve's fall, the order of Zion, and many, many other things.
But then, after Joseph Smith died, there has hardly been any new scripture created, notwithstanding the fact that there has been an unbroken line of prophets from then until the present, all of whom have uttered millions of words, supposedly under inspiration from God. More than that, there have been very few new revelations received by these prophets. Instead, all the prophets after Joseph Smith have merely repeated what he had said rather than giving us new information as he did. Because of this, some members of the LDS Church feel as though communication between God and man ended when Joseph Smith died or that the First Presidency of the Church, along with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, are not real prophets, seers, and revelators.
However, the reason why they feel this way is because they have a misunderstanding concerning the role of a prophet.
The first misunderstanding is a prophet's role as a revelator. All are agreed that revelation comes from God and it is agreed that it comes when God decides to give it. However, the time between such revelations can be quite long. The revelation to Abraham and Jacob concerning their seed was not given to the world in general but was instead given more as a personal patriarchal blessing. The time between the revelation of the flood and the law given to Moses was over a thousand years. It was almost another thousand years before Isaiah and Jeremiah made their prophecies.
The reason why Joseph Smith received so many revelations is because most of them were necessary to restore previously known but lost truths, such as baptism for the dead and the temple rituals. As we look at the three degrees of glory and compare them to the ancient temple design given to Moses, we see more clearly the symbolism of that design and come to a better understanding of the nature and purpose of temples. But then, when God had established all the truth He intended to give us at this time, He took Joseph Smith home to Him. In fact, Joseph Smith didn't record all that God had shown him, which was also the case with some of the Book of Mormon prophets.
However, revelation still continues in the LDS Church to this day except most of the time it isn't spectacular or dramatic. The Church Welfare program is an example of something that was divinely inspired but so is the calling of a new apostle. The name of that individual comes by revelation to the President of the Church and the same is true of the selection of Stake Presidents and bishops. But revelation is not received only by prophets but is available to everyone who has been given the gift of the Holy Ghost. To say that there is no more revelation in the Church is to disregard the vast majority of revelations that occurs nearly every day. But the reason why people tend to overlook these divine inspirations is because they don't fit a preconceived idea that revelation has to be something excitingly new.
The second misunderstanding about a prophet is his role as a seer. Many people think that a seer and a revelator are the same thing, but they're not. Technically, a seer is someone who sees the future. This could involve the making of a prophecy where they have literally seen the future in a vision, as is recorded in the book of Revelation or as Nephi saw concerning the coming of the Savior. However, most of the time a seer is someone who is aware of some coming danger that can only be discerned by inspiration. Such was the case with the apostle Paul when he warned of a coming apostasy. There was no specifics, only a general warning of what to watch out for.
In our day the need for a food storage program during times of prosperity was figuratively "seen" forty years before hard economic times came. It was through the inspiration of a seer that the need to implement a program to strengthen the family unit came long before there was any evidence that this institution would someday come under serious attack in many different ways. The same was true for the need to stress moral purity decades before pornography was readily available in the privacy of the home through the internet. Thus, we see that a seer is someone who receives divine guidance about the future, whether by visions or by inspiration.
The third misunderstanding is that people often think that a prophet IS a seer as well as a revelator but that is not true. The role of a prophet is separate and distinct from that of a seer or a revelator.
The Lord Himself explained, "There are, in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic… The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right of presidency, and has power and authority over all the offices in the church in all ages of the world, to administer in spiritual things. The Presidency of the High Priesthood, after the order of Melchizedek, have a right to officiate in all the offices in the church… The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church" (D&C 107:1, 8, 9, 18).
There are several things we learn from this. The first is that the Melchizedek priesthood "holds the right of presidency." That means one of the functions of the Melchizedek priesthood is to preside over "all the offices in the church." Since the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve hold the Melchizedek priesthood, their duty as prophets is to preside over the Church and they do this according to the "power and authority" which is their "right," given to them from God by virtue of the office of their calling. Thus, the first role of a prophet is to preside over the Church of Jesus Christ, acting according to His power and authority as His earthly representatives.
The second thing we learn is that the purpose of the Melchizedek Priesthood is to give "all spiritual blessings to the church." As Melchizedek priesthood holders presiding over the entire church, the second role of a prophet is to oversee and make sure that the members of Christ's church have available to them "all [the] spiritual blessings" that they are worthy to receive. This would undoubtedly include the spiritual blessings found in the temple. Therefore, one of the things prophets are responsible for doing is making sure that all worthy members of the Church have access to the temples of the Lord.
In this same revelation, the Lord went on to be more specific about the duties of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. He said, "Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church. The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world…. The Twelve are a Traveling Presiding High Council, to officiate in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Presidency of the Church, agreeable to the institution of heaven; to build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and secondly unto the Jews" (D&C107: 22, 23, 33).
The role of a prophet is to be a "special witness of the name of Christ" and to testify of Him "in all the world." While all those who believe in Christ have a duty to testify of Him, a prophet has a special and unique calling to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. In the original Church, this is exactly what all the ancient apostles did. All of them were traveling missionaries. However, since they can't be everywhere, their calling to preside over the Church and to dispense all spiritual blessings includes overseeing all missionary work throughout the world.
But missionary work is not the only function of the Church. As the apostle Paul explained, the purpose of the church is "For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:12,13).
The "work of the ministry" has reference to missionary work but once a person has accepted Christ and agrees to keep His commandment as symbolized by their baptism, then the church has the responsibility "for the perfecting of the saints" which is done by "the edifying of the body of Christ." To "edify" means to "build up" or to strengthen someone in the gospel. In other words, the purpose of the Church is to help the saints become perfect, even as Christ is perfect, by strengthening them spiritually. And the way this is done is to bring us to "the knowledge of the Son of God" so that "we all come [to a] unity of the faith."
As the presiding authority over the Church, it is the duty of a prophet to make sure that the gospel is not only preached to those outside the Church but also to those who belong to the Church with the intent of helping them become perfected because of their knowledge of and faith in Jesus Christ. That is why the Lord said, "under the direction of the Presidency of the Church" the prophets are "to build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and secondly unto the Jews." Thus, the most important role of a prophet is not to be a seer or a revelator but to be a preacher of Christ's gospel and to make sure that the true gospel of Christ is being preached everywhere, even within the Church.
Even though Noah had been given a revelation about the coming flood, his primary role as a prophet was to preach the gospel of repentance. Even though Isaiah and Jeremiah had visions about the coming destruction of Judah, their writings were designed to call the Jews to repentance. Concerning John the Baptist, Jesus said, "Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke 7:28). While it is true that John predicted that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, what makes him the greatest prophet born of woman was not his revelations but that he prepared the way for the coming Messiah by preaching the gospel of repentance and baptism. Yet, despite him being the greatest prophet born of woman, we have very little scripture containing what he said.
Peter had visions, as did Paul and John but that's not what qualified them to be an apostle or a prophet. Today, when we read their words, it isn't to learn some new revelation but to be better instructed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of their writings was not so much to reveal unknown information as it was to be "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, [and] for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16).
And the same was true of Jesus when He walked the earth. There are a few things He said that were new or unknown but that was not what His message was about. While He had compassion on those who were sick and afflicted, His mission was not to be a healer. First and foremost He was a teacher who went about preaching the gospel of faith, repentance and baptism. When He sent forth His apostles the first time He commanded them saying, "as ye go, peach saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 10:7, italics added). The very last commandment He gave them just before ascending into heaven was "Go ye therefore and teach all nations… teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19,20, italics added).
The role of a prophet is not to create new scripture or give new revelation but to teach the gospel. When Jesus taught the gospel He did so from the Old Testament scriptures. His message was, "Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39. Even after His resurrection, as He walked with two of His disciples along the road to Emmaus, "beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:24). When talking about the law of Moses, Jesus didn't give us new revelation but, instead, corrected the false doctrine taught by the Pharisees, thereby restoring the true understanding of what God had originally told Moses. As the early apostles went forth, they too preached the gospel from the scriptures because that is the primary responsibility of a prophet, not only in ancient times but in our time as well.
As we have already discussed, a prophet holds the Melchizedek priesthood and is therefore an elder. In our day the Lord has told us that "The duty of the elders, priests, teachers, deacons, and members of the church of Christ.. is to preach, expound, exhort, and baptize… and visit the house of each member and exhort them to pray vocally and in secret and attend to all family duties… to watch over the church always and be with and strengthen them and see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking … They are to warn expound, exhort and teach and invite all to come unto Christ" (D&C 20:38, 42, 46, 47, 53, 59). He also explained that "the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon" (D&C 42:12).
In addition to the duties of priesthood holders, the Lord has also warned, "inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents … And they shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord" ( D&C 68:25,28).
As the presiding authorities over the entire Church, the role of the prophets is not to give new revelation or create new scriptures or to see the future or make prophetic pronouncements. While they may indeed do those things from time to time, their primary responsibility, as given to them by God, is "to warn expound, exhort… and invite all to come unto Christ," to strengthen the Church and to see that there is no iniquity among its members. In short, the duty of a prophet is to teach the gospel.