In the gospel of Matthew we read that "when [Jesus] had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and disease" (Matthew 10:1). He also told them, "Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you" (Luke 10:19).
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that the power Jesus gave to His disciples comes from the priesthood of God and it was through that priesthood which was conferred upon them that gave these twelve men the power against unclean spirits, to heal all manner of sickness, to escape harm and to overcome the enemy. We also believe that it was this same priesthood that allowed Jesus to accomplish the miracles and wonders He performed. We further believe that this same priesthood is still being conferred upon men today thereby giving them the same power that Jesus and his ancient disciples possessed.
If that is true, then the question can be asked of all LDS priesthood holders, "What are we doing with the power that we have been given?" In order to answer that question we first have to understand what the power of the priesthood is.
The scriptures just cited mention several things that the priesthood can be used for but this not a complete list. They are also used to perform all the ordinances of salvation, such as baptism, giving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and administering the ordinances performed in LDS temples. The priesthood is also needed to perform the blessing upon the sacrament along with the giving other blessings. All these acts are made valid only when performed by an authorized holder of the priesthood. That's because when someone performs any of these ordinances without the authority of the priesthood their actions have no power to them.
For example, when a person is baptized, a few words are spoken and then the person is completely immersed in water. When they come up out of the water all of their past sins have been washed away but it isn't the act of putting a person under the water that washes away their sins. It is the priesthood which the person performing the baptism has that actually has the power to take away the stain of sin. Without the priesthood, the person being baptized is simply getting wet.
And the same principle applies to all the other ordinances of salvation. It is the power that a priesthood holder has that allows them to perform simple ceremonies that gives them the ability to save someone. Since this power comes as part of holding the priesthood, whenever an LDS priesthood holders blesses the sacrament, baptizes, confers the Holy Ghost on someone or gives any kind of a blessing they are using the power of the priesthood
But there is another power that is part of the priesthood which is most commonly used in the Church but is often not recognized as such and that is the power to govern.
In the LDS Church, all those who hold positions of leadership authority must also hold the priesthood because without it, they have no right or authority to preside. But, whereas all priesthood holders are able to perform most saving ordinances, not all priesthood holders have the right to govern. Only those who are called and given specific authority (knows as keys) have the power to govern over specific groups of people.
With these keys of leadership comes priesthood powers that are not available to all who hold the priesthood. For example, when someone is called to be a bishop, with that calling he also is given the power of discernment, the power of inspiration for guiding his ward, along with the power of administration and these powers are available to him for as long as he retains his position as a bishop. But, when he is released from his calling, he also loses the use of these powers. In the same way, when young men are called and set apart to serve as missionaries they are then able to exercise powers associated with their calling that were not available to them both before and after their mission.
But not everyone is a leader, and opportunities to perform ordinances don't come very frequently. In that case, what does a priesthood holder do with the power of his priesthood during those times when he's not in a leadership position or performing ordinances?
The answer to that question comes from understanding what God does with His priesthood.
Everything God does is centered around helping His children achieve both immortality and eternal life and to do that He uses the power of His priesthood. Part of the plan of salvation that our Heavenly Father presented to us in our pre-mortal life called for us to live on a physical earth where we could gain a physical body. To accomplish those tasks, God used the power of His priesthood to create the world and to infuse it with all sorts of life, including our physical bodies which became a living organism.
The most essential part of the plan of salvation called for a savior who would take upon himself the sins of the world and then offer himself up as a sacrifice. This act of redemption required two steps. The first was to have our sins put upon Him who was to be our Savior. Although most Christians just accept this as a given fact, very few people even wonder how such a thing happened, and those that do contemplate this aspect of salvation often spend little time thinking about it because we are not capable of understanding how this transference of sin was done. However, for that to happen there had to be some sort of power that transferred our sins to Jesus. That power came from God's priesthood.
The second step was for Christ to pay the penalty for our sins. The fact that He died on the cross doesn't fully explain how that happened. After all, the Romans had crucified thousands of people yet not one crucified person ever had the power to take away anyone's sins. Since only Christ's death could do that then it is obvious, there was some power at work that allowed that to happen. If it is the priesthood that gives power to all saving ordinances, and it was Christ's death on the cross that saves us from our sins, then it is clear that the power of the priesthood would have been needed for such a saving sacrifice to be effective.
When speaking of His sacrifice, notice that Jesus said, "No man taketh it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again" (John 10:18). Jesus had the power of life and death at His command. No one had the power to take His life unless He granted it, and He had the power to deliberately lay down His life anytime He so chose. That power came from the priesthood He held.
Although the death of Christ on the cross was able to atone for our sins, there was still another ordinance that was needed to be preformed if we were to become fully saved and that was the ordinance of the resurrection. As the apostle Paul explained, "If there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching [in] vain, and your faith is also [in] vain" (I Corinthians 15:13-14). The resurrection is as important and essential to our salvation as is the atonement. As Paul pointed out, if Christ did not rise from the grave then having faith in Him is pointless.
The prophet Jacob explained, "behold, if the flesh should rise no more our spirits must become subject to that angel who fell from before the presence of the Eternal God, and became the devil, to rise no more. And our spirits must have become like unto him, and we become devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself" (2 Nephi 9:8-9). From these and other scriptures, it is clear that the resurrection is just as essential to our salvation as is the atonement which means it had to be an ordinance that was performed through the power of the priesthood.
However, even though the saving power of the atonement is only effective for those who accept Christ and who strive to keep His commandments, the power of the resurrection is universal. That is to say, everyone will be resurrected from the dead in the same way that Jesus was resurrected. Paul explained, "For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Because of what one man named Adam did, everyone will die. In the same way, because of what one man named Jesus did, everyone will be resurrected.
But why must we be resurrected?
Most Christians believe that when we die, our spirits go to one of two places - either heaven or hell - and there we will spend the rest of eternity. But if that is true, then there's no reason for raising our bodies from the grave only to send us back with them either to heaven or hell. Obviously then there must be a greater purpose behind the resurrection.
The LDS Church teaches that the Lord revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith that in heaven there are three degrees of glory - celestial, terrestrial, and telestial (D&C 76) and that after the resurrection nearly all men will inherit one of these three degrees or kingdoms of glory. Those who have been properly baptized and were faithful in keeping the commandments of God will inherit the celestial glory. Those who were not properly baptized but lead good lives will inherit the terrestrial kingdom, while those who did wickedly will inherit the telestial kingdom. Only those who have committed the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost will not inherit any of these kingdoms but will be cast into outer darkness where there is no glory.
If each of these three kingdoms are "degrees of glory" then each of them must be different gradations of heaven itself. And if that is the case, then all those who are not cast into outer darkness will be saved in heaven to one degree or another. Thus we see that the atonement of Christ does indeed provide some degree of salvation to nearly everyone.
All of this has been done through ordinances that were performed by the power of the priesthood but the plan of salvation did not start when the earth was created nor when the plan was presented to us in the councils of heaven. It started when we were born as spirit children to our heavenly parents.
From the very moment of our eternal existence God began His work of providing for our salvation and the way He did this was by raising and teaching us how to become like Him. It wasn't until we had progressed far enough in our spiritual development that we were then ready to move onto the next step of growth, which involved leaving our heavenly home and coming here to earth.
But even after we came here to earth our Father in heaven continues to provide all of us with opportunities to grow spiritually. However, in each step of our journey to salvation we are allowed the freedom to choose the path we want to follow, whether that path leads to the highest realm of heaven or whether we want to take a path that will eventually take us to the lowest part of the lowest kingdom of heaven.
However, in giving us this freedom to choose, God doesn't allow us to make our decision without any guidance, instruction, or help on His part. Quite the opposite is true. Just like all loving fathers seek to influence the direction their children take, so God, our Father, likewise constantly seeks to persuade each of His children to follow a course of behavior that will lead them to real, lasting happiness. The fact that some children may choose to follow a different way of life doesn't mean that a loving parent stops trying to save their children from making the wrong choices.
As important as the atonement and resurrection is to our salvation, they only are able to open up the gates of heaven. It is up to us to determine which degree of heaven we want to inherit. This is why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only sends out missionaries to bring the gospel to people but to help perfect them once they've accepted Christ. The goal of Christ's Church is to help influence and persuade people to seek after and strive to achieve the greatest gift that God has to offer us. And to accomplish this goal leaders in the Church need the power that comes from the priesthood they hold.
But our Father in heaven isn't just concerned about our spiritual salvation. He is also concerned about our temporal or earthly salvation as well. To understand why, we first need to understand what is meant by being saved.
We can either be saved from something or saved to something. For example, Protestant Christianity teaches that the reward of the sinner is to be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone where they will suffer unimaginable pain forever. However, when a person accepts Christ as their Savior, they will be saved from this torment. In this sense, the word "saved" means "to protect or deliver or rescue us from" some sort of harm or danger.
Yet the word "saved" can also mean "to preserve or to set aside for future use" such as when we save money. When used in this sense, the word "saved" means that God has assured us that, despite our sins, He has reserved or saved a place for us in heaven.
This is how the word is used in a spiritual sense but it can also be used in a temporal sense the same way. For example, we refer to a house being saved from damage during an earthquake or tornado or someone being saved from financial ruin. We also talk about our economy saving jobs or spouses saving their marriage. These are all examples of temporal salvation.
The scriptures have been called "the word of God" yet within its pages we see commandments, advice, counsel, and admonishments that are strictly concerned with earthly matters. For example, God has given us commandments against getting drunk, how children are to relate to parents, and interact with others. God had given us advice and counsel on such things as marriage and the proper way to raise children and He has admonished us to be prepared for emergencies that may come up in our life. If we follow these words of God we will not only be saved from harm and unhappiness but our future happiness will also be saved, preserved, or assured
There are those who face problems and heartaches because of wrong choices they've made in life, while others face similar trials through no fault of their own yet the Lord seeks to save each of us temporally in the same say He seeks to save us spiritually - through the power of His priesthood.
Throughout all the scriptures, including the Old and New Testaments, the Lord has repeatedly commanded His people to care for the poor, the sick, the widow, and the downtrodden. The parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates this concept and Jesus Himself taught that those who will inherit the kingdom of God will be those who gave meat to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, took in the stranger, clothed the naked, and visited those in prison (Matthew 25:34-38). Whenever we perform any act of compassionate and caring service to others we are actually performing acts of temporal salvation which is no different than what God does when He uses the power of His priesthood to help save His children.
However, while it is true that people don't need the priesthood in order to help others, those who hold the priesthood not only have a power that others don't possess but they have a greater duty to assist others through the use of God's power. Perhaps we can understand this principle through the use of an illustration. Suppose that someone had car problems while driving and had to pull over and stopped on the shoulder of the road because they couldn't go any further. Anyone could stop to give them assistance but their aid would be limited to what they were able to do on the spot.
By comparison, suppose a police officer came by and stopped to offer help. As an authorized agent of the state they travel in cars that have the power of flashing lights that can warn traffic to stay clear, thereby providing extra protection to the stranded motorist. They also have radio communication that can summon the proper kind of help and, when they do call for help, their request is honored more quickly.
There are many people whose lives have run off the road and are stranded with problems. Although anyone can offer them assistance and help, those who hold the priesthood can act as authorized agents for the kingdom of God and, as such, have access to the powers of heaven. They are entitled to divine inspiration, the power to perform miracles, and to call on the assistance of angels. As agents of God, they have been empowered through the priesthood to assist our Father in Heaven in the salvation of His children whether that is by performing spiritual ordinances or giving temporal aid by caring for the hungry, sick, naked, and troubled.
This is no different than what an earthly father does with his children. From the time they are born he not only teaches them how to walk, talk, read, and perform other tasks but he also provides for their material needs as well, such as food, shelter, warmth, and health, all in an effort to make them happy and save them from negative consequences. As part of his children's education he teaches them the proper way to behave, especially towards their siblings, encouraging them to get along with one another and helping each other in the same way that our heavenly Father teaches His children to care for one another.
But when an earthly father holds the priesthood he not only has a greater duty to do all these things but he also has the power of inspiration and additional blessings from the Lord that he can call upon to aid him in this duty. In this way the priesthood is a tool or resource that he can draw upon as he seeks to provide for the spiritual, temporal, and emotional needs of his family, especially when they encounter problems.
Because a father holds the power of the priesthood, the Lord requires that he preside in the home and the reason for this is that he is fulfilling the same function of governing that all leaders in the Church perform. And as a governing official, the Lord holds him accountable for the spiritual and temporal salvation of all those under his care, in the same way that a bishop or stake president is held accountable for their stewardship over the spiritual and temporal salvation of those within their jurisdiction.
Those who have been given the honor of holding the priesthood have also been given the duty and responsibility to use its power to help others. When we are not performing sacred ordinances or serving in presiding position, there are still countless ways we can use the power of the priesthood. It may be to help guide someone who has strayed from the path of righteousness, or to help comfort someone who is in pain, either physically or emotionally, or to be a friend to someone who is struggling with problems in their life, or to help ease the burdens of the poor, the sick, or the lonely.
Salvation doesn't just mean being saved from hell and being saved into heaven, it can also mean being saved from the vicissitudes of life. This is what God, our Father, uses His priesthood to accomplish and we can use it to accomplish the same purpose because it is the power of salvation.