Summary: Under the law of Moses, there were two priesthoods – the Levitical and the Aaronic – but in the book of Hebrews we learn of another one called the Melchizedek priesthood. Although all students of the Bible are familiar with the first two, they know virtually nothing about the third one because the Bible tells us very little about it. This article examines the various priesthoods of God in relationship to how they help us gain eternal life.
The writer of Hebrews explained, “If therefore perfection were by the Levitical priesthood, (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise after the order of Melchizedek, and not be called after the order of Aaron?” (Hebrews 7:11).
Nearly all Christians understand that under the law of Moses, all males who belonged to the tribe of Levi were ordained to be priests who served as official representatives of God. These were called Levitical priests. However, the Lord gave Aaron, the brother of Moses and who was also from the tribe of Levi, and his descendants a special form of service. They were not just priests but were to be high priests who served primarily in the temple. These men were called after the order of Aaron which was known as the Aaronic priesthood as opposed to those Levites who held the Levitical priesthood. The main difference between these two priesthoods was in the sacred duties and ceremonies they were allowed to perform.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that those who held these two priesthoods administered or saw to it that the children of Israel properly observed performing the various sacred ordinances that the Law of Moses prescribed. However, for all its sacrifices of animals and grain, the law of Moses didn’t have the power to save anyone.
In order for that to happen there had to be another priest come along but not one who was after the order of Aaron or of the Levites. Instead, he had to be of the order of Melchizedek. However, this is where nearly all Christians lose their understanding of this scripture because the Bible tells us nothing about this order.
The book of Hebrews tells us that there was a man by the name of Melchizedek who lived at the time of Abraham and yet, as highly favored of God as Abraham was, Melchizedek appears to be someone who was superior to Abraham. We know that he was not only a great priest but that he was also the King of Salem and that Abraham paid tithing to him, but other than that the Bible tells us nothing more.
In the book of Hebrews we read: “So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrew 5:5-6). Jesus was not a descendent of either Aaron or Levi so he was not eligible under the law of Moses to hold the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood, but here we see that God, the Father, ordained his Son, Jesus Christ, to the Melchizedek priesthood.
The unanswered question we are left with is, what is the Melchizedek priesthood and why must salvation come through someone who is from this order? What saving power does this priesthood have that the Aaronic and Levitical priesthoods lack? The Protestant world has no answer to this question.
However, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does. In a revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord explained, “There are in the church, two priesthoods, namely, the Melchizedek and Aaronic, including the Levitical Priesthood… The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the right of presidency and has power and authority over all the offices in the church… to administer in spiritual things” (D&C 107:1,8).
The Aaronic priesthood administers the temporal or earthly ordinances such as animal sacrifices and baptism, but the Melchizedek priesthood administers the spiritual ordinances such as giving the gift of the Holy Ghost, blessings the sacrament, and all the temple ordinances. But from what we learn in the book of Hebrews, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to hold this “higher” priesthood in order to perform the greatest spiritual ordinance of all, which was atoning for the sins of the world.
Even now, as in the days of Moses, the priesthood is what authorized someone to perform sacred ordinance that God will accept in behalf of people. For example, an animal sacrifice was not considered valid unless it was performed by a Levite priest. A sacrifice that was performed by a priest of a different religion or by an Israelite who was not a Levite priest was not accepted by the Lord. In the same way, baptisms today are only recognized valid by God when performed by a priest who has been authorized by God, and that authorization comes with being properly ordained to the Aaronic priesthood.
When a young man in the LDS church becomes 12 years old they are chosen by the bishop to come in for an interview concerning their worthiness to receive the Aaronic priesthood. If the bishop determines they are worthy and they understand the duties and responsibilities that go along with it, they are offered the opportunity to have that priesthood conferred upon them and be ordained to the office of a Deacon. If they accept this calling, a time is arranged for this ordination to be performed. Hence, there is a three-step process where they chosen, called, and ordained.
This same procedure happens when a young man turns 14 years old and are eligible to be ordained to the office of teacher in the Aaronic priesthood, when they turn 16 years old and are eligible to be ordained to the office of priest in the Aaronic priesthood, and when they turn 18 years old and become eligible to receive the office of an elder in the Melchizedek priesthood. In other words, the timing of when a young man is considered for advancement in the priesthood is based on their age and worthiness. However, when an adult male joins the LDS church, their advancement in the priesthood is based solely on when their priesthood leader and bishop feel they are ready to hold the priesthood, rather than making that determination more on their age or length of time in the church.
Each office in the Aaronic priesthood grants the individual the right to perform additional duties than the previous or lower office. The Melchizedek priesthood allows an individual to exercise all the duties performed by a priest in the Aaronic priesthood plus more, therefore it is appropriate to say that when an Aaronic priesthood holder is given the Melchizedek priesthood that they are being “advanced” in the priesthood. It is literally a promotion or a step upward. However, this is not true when someone is ordained to the various offices within the Melchizedek priesthood, such as being made a high priest, a bishop, stake president, an apostle, or even the President of the Church. Each of these offices or positions are merely different assignments within the Melchizedek priesthood.
This means that the President of the Church doesn’t hold any more priesthood authority than a newly ordained elder. For example, a deacon cannot bless the sacrament but a priest can. Thus, a priest has more priesthood authority than a deacon. But a priest cannot give a blessing upon the sick while an elder can, thereby showing that an elder has more priesthood authority than a priest. But the President of the Church doesn’t have any more authority in the use of his priesthood than does the newest elder. Instead, he only has different duties, responsibilities and assignments within the Melchizedek priesthood.
The term we use for distinguishing between these duties is “keys.” Keys are given primarily for administrative purposes, that allow those holding keys the right to exercise their priesthood authority in certain areas. For example, when someone is called to be a bishop they are given the keys or the right to preside over a particular ward. If every elder had the same authority to preside over their ward there would be chaos, but a bishop doesn’t have any more priesthood than an elder. Instead, he merely has different priesthood duties assigned to him.
In the same way, when someone is called to be the Young Men’s president or ward mission leader, or Elder’s Quorum president, or high councilman, they are not being advanced in the priesthood but are being assigned certain, specified duties to perform. And the same is true of an apostle and the president of the church.
However, although there are specific keys given with each calling in the priesthood, there are also general keys that all priesthood holders are given at the time when they receive either the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood. For example, when someone is ordained as a priest, they automatically receive the keys or the right to bless the sacrament. When someone is ordained an elder, they automatically receive the keys to give blessings. It is when someone receives additional general keys that it can be said that they have advanced in the priesthood because those additional keys give them greater priesthood authority.
But there is a priesthood that is higher in authority than the Melchizedek priesthood and that is the priesthood that our Father in heaven holds. It is known as the priesthood of God or simply godhood, and it is held only by those who have become exalted beings. When someone has this priesthood conferred upon them, they advance in the priesthood in the same way that an Aaronic priesthood holder advances to the Melchizedek priesthood, and it is an advancement because they receive more general keys than those holding the Melchizedek priesthood.
The way someone receives this priesthood is the same way someone receives the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood. When a church authority feels someone is worthy and ready to receive their exaltation, that person will be chosen to be interviewed. If found worthy they will be extended the call to accept this higher priesthood, and if they accept it, a time will be set for them to be anointed or have conferred upon them the priesthood of God.
When we speak of someone being a “church authority” it refers to someone who holds the keys to make the judgment of worthiness. Since no one has the right to confer a priesthood that is greater than the one they hold, then it is clear that when it comes to determining someone’s worthiness for exaltation and conferring this higher priesthood onto someone else, that church authority will have to be someone who is already an exalted being themselves. Furthermore, since only eternally married couples can receive exaltation, therefore this interview will be conducted with both the husband and wife who are being considered for exaltation. This means that neither one of them will be chosen for advancement in the priesthood if one of the spouses is not yet ready or worthy of exaltation.
The Lord has revealed that before it was called the Melchizedek priesthood it was called “the Holy Priesthood after the order of the Son of God” (D&C 107:3), however I think that name is more significant than people realize. To understand why, we need to understand something about the role of Jesus in the Father’s plan of salvation.
There has been a question about how Jehovah/Jesus can be God — meaning an exalted being — before he was born in mortality, tested, married for eternity, died, and was resurrected. Since those are the requirements needed for someone to become exalted, and the LDS church teaches that even our Father in heaven had to fulfilled all of those same requirements before he became a God, then how did Jesus become a God before going through that process himself?
The answer is found in the pattern of leadership we see in the church.
Every priesthood leader presides by virtue of the keys he holds, but he presides with two counselors. However, neither of them hold any keys, which means they serve under the direction and by the authority of their presiding priesthood leader.
Even so, they are also called by the title of president. For example, there is only one stake president in each stake but his counselors are also called by the title of president, even though they are not actual presidents. And the same is true of the president of the church and his two counselors.
And the same is true of our Father in heaven. He alone is the president or leader or presiding authority over his children, but he presides over us with two counselors – the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Just like in the church, these two counselors serve under the direction of our Father in heaven and he has given each one of them a different assignment to accomplish. And because they are counselors to the only true God, who is the Father, his counselors are also referred to as God. Thus, there is God, the Father, who presides, his first counselor, who is known as God, the Son, and his second counselor, who is known as God, the Holy Ghost.
However, his counselors are not exalted beings like our Father is. In that case they can’t hold the same priesthood that he does because it is that priesthood that gives him the right to be an exalted being and thereby hold the true office of godhood. Therefore, the only priesthood they can hold is what we call the Melchizedek priesthood. But, before Melchizedek came along this was known as the Holy Priesthood after the order of the SON of God – not of God the Father!
This clearly tells us that when Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Israelites worshipped Jehovah, and even when Jesus walked the earth, he only held the Melchizedek priesthood because he was not an exalted being yet. But after Jesus had lived in mortality (and presumably was sealed to a wife), was tested, died, and was resurrected, God (who is an exalted being) exalted his Son to sit on his right hand (Acts 2:33; 5:31; Philippians 2:9). It is at this point that Jesus received the priesthood of God, which holds all the rights and privileges of the Melchizedek priesthood plus those of godhood.
Although Jesus still serves in the capacity as his Father’s first counselor, today he now does so as an exalted being like his Father. This would be similar to a former stake president serving as a counselor to the current stake president. But just because the Son has the same priesthood as the Father doesn’t mean he no longer has to obey his Father. As the first counselor in the Godhead, or First Presidency of heaven, Jesus still serves under the direction of his Father.
As Jesus told Mary on the day he was resurrected, “Go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father [in heaven] and [who is also] your Father [in heaven]; and to my God, and [to him who is also the same being who is] your God” (John 20:17). Jesus refers to our Father in heaven, whom we worship as God, as being his God as well And, just as we are to be obedient to God, the Father, Jesus is likewise obedient to him.
This subservience to the Father is shown in Paul’s writings when he said, “Then cometh the end when he (Jesus) shall deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power… and when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God [the Father] may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24,28 see D&C 76:107).
The New Living Translation renders it this way: “After that the end will come, when he (Jesus) will turn the kingdom over to God the Father, having destroyed every ruler and authority and power… Then, when all things are under his authority, the Son will put himself under God’s authority, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere.”
Just as the Father exalted his Son, the apostle Peter tells us to “humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God [as Christ did], that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6), and the way we will become exalted is a time will come when we will be chosen by those in heavenly positions of authority to be interviewed for advancement in the priesthood, and if we are found worthy, we will be given the calling to receive the greatest gift that God has to offer us which is eternal life. But the only way we can receive that gift is to be anointed with the priesthood of God.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of the Priesthood