On May 15, 1829 John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and, after placing his hands upon their heads, said, "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."
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when a boy turns twelve years of age they are eligible to be ordained to "the Priesthood of Aaron." Although they must first be interviewed by their bishop to determine if they are worthy enough to be ordained, the threshold to meet that worthiness is not very high. As a result, nearly all LDS boys have this priesthood conferred upon them. .
When we consider that most of these boys know they will routinely be given the Aaronic Priesthood shortly after their twelfth birthday and will automatically receive advancements in it as they get older they further tend to think of holding the priesthood as something that everyone gets just for reaching a certain age. And it is partly because of the ease by which they receive this priesthood and partly because of their age that many LDS youth don't fully appreciate how significant this ordination is and how special it is to hold the priesthood. For these and other reasons, LDS boys between the ages of twelve and eighteen have a tendency to take their ordination lightly and treat it casually as though it is of little importance.
But nothing could be farther from the truth.
The most commonly used definition of the priesthood is, "the power of God delegated to man to act for the salvation of mankind." However, to most youth, that statement doesn't have a lot of meaning. Therefore, in order to better appreciate the importance of holding the priesthood we first need to have a better understanding of what it is.
We believe that our purpose for being here on earth is to learn how to someday become just like God. That is to say, the purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to teach us how to become gods ourselves. (For an more in-depth look at this subject, see "Ye Gods" ) This is known as the doctrine of exaltation, which simply means that we can become exalted to the status of godhood.
Our Father, who lives in heaven, is God precisely because He holds the priesthood. In other words, if our Father in heaven didn't hold the priesthood then He couldn't be God. Although this may sound like a blasphemous doctrine to those outside of our faith it is at the center of everything we believe about who God is.
It is the priesthood that gives God the power to do all that He does and without it He would be powerless. It is through the power found within the priesthood that God can command the elements of nature and create worlds without number. And it is also through the power of the priesthood that God is able to save His children from their sins. Therefore, since God holds the priesthood and it is essential that He does, then in order for us to become exalted we have to acquire and then learn how to use this same priesthood ourselves.
There is an irrevocable law that even God must obey which says that no unclean thing can exist in heaven (Ephesians 5:5; 1 Nephi 15:34). The reason why our Father can live in heaven is precisely because He is totally and completely clean (i.e., without sin). In other words, He is perfect, and the very reason why He created this earth was for helping us to become perfect just as He is. That is what the scriptures mean when it says that God's work is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
However, part of the process of helping us do that involves allowing us the freedom to choose for ourselves whether we want to do good or do evil. But if we were ever to choose evil just one time then we would become unclean and therefore be denied the privilege of living in heaven. And, indeed, each of us have frequently made the conscious choice to do evil. Therefore, all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory that allows us to live in heaven with God.
But God, our Father, knew this would happen before He ever created the earth and already had a way to save us from the consequences of our own sins. That is what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. However, the way the gospel saves us is through the power God has in His priesthood. In other words, it is the power in God's priesthood that allows Him to erase our sins as though we had never made them. Without the priesthood God could not save us.
Baptism is known as a "saving ordinance" because it is an act we have to participate in to become saved from the consequences of our sin and be saved for exaltation. But what makes baptism effective in saving us is not merely being dunked under water and getting wet but the power of the priesthood that accompanies the dunking. Without the priesthood there is no saving power to being baptized.
To be saved we need to have the ordinance of receiving the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands because without the Holy Ghost guiding us, teaching us, prodding us, correcting us, and convicting us we would keep making wrong choices. Therefore, this too is one of the saving ordinances needed to become exalted. But, here again, this ordinance has no effect unless it is performed by the power of God's priesthood.
To become exalted both men and women need to be married, not just for this time on earth, but for all eternity. Thus, to be saved for exaltation men and women must submit themselves to the saving ordinance of being sealed as husband and wife. But, here again, what makes this sealing effective is the power of the priesthood of the person performing the ordinance.
Christ performed the ultimate saving ordinance when He took upon Himself our sins and then shed His blood on the cross. As foreshadowed in the law of Moses, He was the sacrificial lamb who offered up His body as a ransom for our sins. But in order for that ordinance to have any saving effect, it had to be performed by someone holding the priesthood of God. As the apostle Paul explained "every high priest taken from among men is ordained for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Hebrews 5:1). In other words, Christ had to be ordained a priest in things pertaining to God in order to offer Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins.
Paul further explained that Jesus was indeed ordained a high priest after the order of Melchizedek but He did not ordain Himself. Rather He was ordained by God, His Father. Thus, He had to hold the priesthood of God, our Father, in order for His sacrifice to have any saving effect.
It is the priesthood which God holds that has the power to save us and our Father in heaven delegates some of His priesthood authority to us for the purpose of allowing us to do what He can do. That is what it means when we say that the priesthood is the power of God delegated to man to act for the salvation of mankind. Whenever we use the priesthood, especially to perform a saving ordinance, we are acting in God's place, using the power of His priesthood to help Him save His children from the effects of their sins.
But there is more to the priesthood than just its power. The priesthood is also the authority by which God governs. Thus, the priesthood has both power and authority. Although these two elements are inseparably connected to each other (i.e., one can't exist without the other) they are nonetheless separate and distinct from each other. Therefore, to become like God we have to not only know how to use the power of the priesthood but we also need to learn how to govern with the authority of the priesthood as well.
The scriptures tell us that those who will come forth in the first resurrection will be made both kings and priests unto God (Rev. 1:6; 5:10). Since God is both a King and a Priest, in order for us to become like Him we will have to learn how to become a proper king and an effective priest. In other words, if we want to be like our Father in heaven we have to learn to do what He can do, both as a King and as Priest. And that is what the Church is all about - teaching and preparing us for godhood.
The apostle Paul explained that one of the purposes of the Church is to "perfect the saints" and the purpose of doing that is so we can eventually learn how to measure up to the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13). To fulfill this purpose, the Church of Jesus Christ is deliberately designed in such a way as to help us become prepared for exaltation in all of its many facets. And one of the ways it does that is to teach us how to properly use the power of the priesthood as well as learn how to wisely govern in righteousness through the authority of the priesthood because it is in learning those lessons that we become qualified to become both eternal kings and priests.
The Aaronic priesthood is often referred to as the preparatory priesthood and that's because it is meant to help prepare young men to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood by training them how to use the power and authority of God. The Aaronic priesthood is also called the lesser priesthood, not because it is less important but because it has less power than the Melchizedek Priesthood.
The Aaronic Priesthood could also be called the training priesthood because as a young man advances in maturity he goes through a series of levels where he is trained to accept more responsibility in the use of the priesthood. This is no different than the way children are taught in school. What a child learns in the first grade prepares and qualifies them to enter the second grade, which then builds upon what they have already learned and prepares them to advance to the third grade. After twelve levels of schooling a child has gained enough knowledge, skills, and maturity that they are now prepared to advance either to college or to the world of work.
And the same is true for the priesthood. However, instead of twelve levels there are only three - Deacon, Teacher, and Priest - with each level building on the previous one. As a Deacon, a young man is allowed to pass the sacred emblems of Christ body and blood as symbolized by the blessed sacramental bread and water. When a young man becomes a Teacher he is then allowed to prepare the bread and water as well as pass it to the congregation. By the time he becomes a priest he is then finally allowed to actually use some of the power of his priesthood by performing a blessing upon the bread and water. In addition to that he is also allowed to perform one of the saving ordinances of the gospel - baptism.
To those youth who think that there is nothing special or significant about performing these acts they need to understand that what they are doing can't be done by the vast majority of people on the earth. For example, there is not one Catholic priest, including the Pope who has the authority to baptize someone and have it actually wash away someone's sins. And the same is true of every Protestant pastor or minister. No matter how mature, sincere or scholarly these men may be, when they go through the motions of dunking a person in water and uttering a few biblical sounding words they are just playing make-believe if they do not hold the priesthood of God. On the other hand, a sixteen year old boy who holds the Aaronic Priesthood can baptize someone and effectively have that person's sins washed away.
There are those youth who might say, "That's no big deal. Anyone can do the same thing if they were given the priesthood." But the fallacy of this argument is that not everyone is worthy to hold the priesthood. Thus, a sixteen year old youth who holds the Aaronic Priesthood has qualified himself to be worthy of holding the priesthood which is something that the vast majority of people in the world can't claim.
Teachers and Deacons might argue that preparing and passing the sacrament is no big deal because anyone can do that with or without the priesthood. But it is a big deal because it is helping them build the skills they will need when they eventually do hold the Melchizedek Priesthood
Perhaps we can illustrate this by looking at how someone gains another powerful skill. In the martial art of Judo, there are several levels of training signified by the color of the belt they wear. The highest is a black belt and those who wear it are looked upon with great respect and admiration. However, this belt is earned only after years of intense training.
When a person begins their training they are given a white belt signifying they have little to no Judo skills. At this level their training consists of learning the basics of falling and properly standing. Each week as they meet they repeatedly practice these elementary moves until they begin to come naturally to them.
Once they have demonstrated their ability to master these simple, basic movements they are given a yellow belt and then move onto their next level of training. This consists of learning the different techniques of using both their left and right hands. They also learn the basics of using an opponent's momentum to their advantage, whether it be forward, backwards, or sideways. They also learn some simple escape techniques.
Once a person has demonstrated their ability to perform these moves proficiently, they then advance to receiving a green belt where they learn additional skills through the use of constant practice. Next they advance to a brown belt where their training intensifies and becomes more difficult.
It is only when they have achieved a high degree of skill in performing all of the basic Jujitsu moves that they are then awarded a black belt. However, rather than this signifying the crowing achievement of their skill it is just the first of ten degrees or levels of holding a black belt. Thus, it isn't enough for a person to say they have a black belt in Judo. Instead, they must also indicate which degree of black belt they hold. And the higher the degree the more it indicates their proficiency and skill in this martial art. .
In medieval times, young men who came from families of nobility or aristocracy could choose to become a knight, if that was their desire. Their training started when they were eight years old and they were known as pages. The life of a page consisted of doing exercises meant to strengthen their bodies. They also took classes in wrestling, fighting, horse riding, spear throwing, and the wielding of a sword. In addition to these outdoor skills they were also taught to read and write as well as speak in several different languages. They were also schooled in court etiquette and learned how to dance and sing.
If they worked hard and proved themselves worthy, then at the age of fifteen or sixteen they could became a squire, which was to be the servant of a knight, whom they addressed as lord. The duties of a squire consisted of taking care of the needs of his lord, such as cooking and serving his meals, polishing his armor, caring for his weapons, feeding and tending to his horse, getting the knight dressed in his armor and carrying his weapons. The squire was also required to go with the knight to the battlefield or the tournament and tend to his every need. In exchange for performing these duties the knight would become the squire's personal trainer, teaching the boy everything he knew.
Then, after five or six years of acceptably serving his lord, the knight, and diligently developing his skills the squire could become a knight himself when he turned twenty years of age if he was found worthy of that title by his teacher. But before that day came the squire would have spent most of his time performing mundane chores and engaging in long, boring hours of practice. It was only after he had faithfully done all that was required of him that he was allowed to take the final step to knighthood which was to participate in the dubbing ceremony.
The day before the ceremony the squire would spend fasting and praying. Then in the morning he would wash himself, put on a special robe, and say confession to the priest. All of this was done to indicate that he had spiritually cleansed himself and was ready to uphold the high, moral standards required of a knight. Then the priest would pronounce a blessing upon the boy's sword and lay it upon the altar of the church. Once this was done the boy would appear in public before his friends, family, and other people of nobility including the king. There, he would kneel in front of his lord who would take his own sword and lightly tap it on each of the boy's shoulders. When the boy rose to his feet he did so, no longer as a squire but as a knight.
In the same way those who hold the Aaronic Priesthood are pages, who are preparing themselves to someday become squires to their Lord, Jesus Christ. When comparing this to learning Judo, young boys who start out as Deacons can be considered as having obtained a white belt in the priesthood where they are taught the most rudimentary skills needed to become like God. While it may seem to them that some of things they are asked to do are boring and trivial, they are nonetheless important in developing the skills they will need when they receive the Melchizedek Priesthood. Passing the sacrament teaches them to serve others and to show reverence and have respect for sacred things. Collecting fast offerings teaches them to fulfill sacred responsibilities. Going out as a junior home teaching companion prepares them to some day become a senior home teacher.
In addition to this, from the age of twelve to the age of eighteen each boy will have had the opportunity to serve in a quorum presidency where he will learn the principles of governing within the kingdom of God. This will prepare him for the time when he will serve in such presidencies as the Young Men, Elder's quorum, bishopric, and beyond. Thus, they are not only learning the power of the priesthood but how to use its authority as well.
As they strive to prove themselves faithful in performing these elementary tasks, they are preparing themselves to someday be worthy of receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood. But once they have received this title it is not the end of their training but just the beginning. It is like the equivalent of holding a black belt in Judo. Just as there are degrees of a black belt, so it is with the Melchizedek Priesthood. Each calling is an opportunity for us to increase our priesthood skills and become more proficient in using its power and properly governing with its authority. And, just like being a squire, holding the Melchizedek Priesthood often requires doing many mundane and ordinary chores as we tend to the needs of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Each of us comes from nobility because each of us are the son or daughter of an eternal King and High Priest. Therefore, each of us have been given the opportunity to become like our Father, God if that is what we desire. And the way men are prepared to receive that honor is by being trained in how to properly use the priesthood. If we are faithful and learn our lessons well, the time will come when we will put on special robes and be called to come forth before our family, friends, and other people of spiritual nobility, including our heavenly King where we will participate in a dubbing ceremony. There we will kneel at the feet of our Lord, Jesus Christ who will endow us with His own power, authority, and glory. Then, when we rise, we will no longer be servants to God but will become a god ourselves.
The importance of holding the Aaronic Priesthood lays in the fact that it is the first step in a process that leads us to godhood.