Summary: The book of Malachi says that Elijah the prophet will come shortly before the Christ returns again to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. The Jews leave a place at the head of their table during their Passover meal because they believe this is when Elijah will come again, but neither they nor nearly all Christians have any idea what is so important about his coming. This article explains the purpose of Elijah’s return.
The prophet Malachi prophesied: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse”(Malachi 4:6).
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understand this verse of scripture to be referring to doing genealogy work that involves seeking out our departed relatives so that we can be seal together with them forever as eternal families. The reason why it would be Elijah who would come to inaugurate this work is because he holds the priesthood keys or authority that allows someone to bind or seal in heaven that which was done on earth. In other words, those who possessed this authority is what allows heaven to recognize and approve the ordinances which they perform.
For example, anyone can marry two people and proclaim them to be husband and wife, but that doesn’t mean the state has to recognize or accept such a marriage as being valid. But, when someone performs a marriage ceremony who has been legally authorized to do so, then the state is duty bound to recognize that marriage. In the same way, only when an authorized representative of heaven performs a divine ordinance, such as baptism or marriage, is heaven duty bound to accept what has been done here on earth.
But when someone who doesn’t have that legal authority performs a divine ordinance, as far as God is concerned, it’s merely a human, earthly act that heaven is not obligated to accept. For example, when two people are married by the state, they are considered to be legally married by human law, but they are not considered married according to heaven’s law. As long as they are in the world, their marriage is considered to be legal by mortal standards, but when they enter into the world of heaven, the laws there do not recognize them as being husband and wife to each other.
Then how does someone go about acting as an agent or representative for heaven? The answer is, the same way anyone on earth receives authority to act as an agent for the state. It has to be conferred upon them by a duly authorized agent of the state.
For example, not just anyone can perform the ordinance of baptism and obligate heaven to accept it as being valid. For this reason, on May 15, 1829 John the Baptist appeared as a messenger from heaven and conferred upon Joseph Smith the authority to baptize someone for the remission of their sins. However, that authority didn’t authorize Joseph to give anyone the gift of the Holy Ghost. To perform that ordinance, he had to be given additional authority, which he later received at the hands of the ancient apostles Peter, James, and John.
But that authority didn’t allow Joseph to seal husbands and wives together for all eternity. Therefore, on April 3, 1836 the ancient prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland temple as a divinely sent messenger and conferred that authority upon him. It is because of his divine investiture of authority from heaven, that permitted Joseph Smith to perform these saving ordinances here on earth and have them approved and accepted by heaven. And the reason why is because Joseph was acting as a duly authorized agent of heaven. In addition to this, Joseph could also confer that authority onto others when authorized to do so by the Lord, just as others had been sent by heaven to confer their authority onto him.
But what does that have to do with turning the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to their children? Malachi said that this was the reason why Elijah would come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord, but why is the authority, or sealing keys of heaven as they are known, needed to perform the turning of hearts? More than that, if this didn’t happen, why would the Lord come and smite the earth with a curse?
In addition to this, what is the purpose of having a man and a woman being married to each other for all eternity?
It’s been often said by members of Christ’s restored church that by being sealed to each other, it will enable a husband and wife to spend eternity being together, but if both of them make it into heaven, they will be together forever anyway, whether they’ve been sealed to each other or not. It seems inconceivable that if a man and woman who love each other are not eternally married to one another that they will be forbidden to associate with each other while they both live in heaven.
To understand the answer to this question, all we have to do is look at the purpose of marriage here on earth.
In this life before a man and a woman become married, they are able to spend as much time being together as they want, doing things they find mutually enjoyable, such as going to the movies, dining out together, attending activities, watching TV, etc. In fact, even friends can engage in these same kinds of activities with one another without being married.
Then what is the purpose of marriage?
Some will say that it allows a man and a woman to live together rather than separately, but unmarried people do that all the time when sharing an apartment. However, the reason why God created the institution of marriage is to allow two people to legally engage in the kind of activity that is designed to bring forth children into the world.
This same principle applies in heaven. People there can spend all the time they want associating with anyone they want, but only those who have been sealed together as eternal marriage partners are able to do what God does. We refer to God as our “Father” who lives in heaven, and in doing so we are acknowledging that we are his offspring. In fact, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declares that before we were born on earth with a moral body, we lived with God in heaven as his begotten spirit children.
The power to bring forth spirit children is one of the powers that God possesses that only exalted people will inherit. We refer to this condition as eternal life, but what this phrase means is that people who inherit eternal life will have the ability to create life eternally.
The sealing power that Elijah restored to the earth wasn’t just so husbands and wives could enjoy being together forever. We can do that without being married. Rather, it was necessary, and in fact it is essential and crucial for us to be eternally married in order to possess all the powers that our Father in heaven has. When that happens, we refer to this condition as becoming exalted or entering into our exaltation.
But what does this have to do with turning the hearts of the children to the fathers and the fathers to the children?
On the evening of September 21, 1823, after Joseph Smith had retired to his bed and was in the process of saying his evening prayers, a heavenly messenger suddenly appeared at his bedside and identified himself as an ancient prophet named Moroni. He told Joseph many things but one of them concerned this prophecy of Malachi. Of that incident, Joseph wrote: “And again, he quoted the fifth verse thus: Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. He also quoted the next verse differently: And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming” (Joseph Smith History, 1:38,39).
There are three important differences between what is recorded in our Bible and what Moroni said concerning Malachi’s prophecy. The first is that before the great and dreadful day of the Lord came, Elijah would come and “reveal unto you the priesthood by the hand of Elijah, the prophet.” It is the priesthood of God that allows someone to act in his name because it is the power that heaven recognizes.
The second difference in wording is that Elijah would plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and as a result of this “planting,” the hearts of the children would begin to turn towards their fathers. This telling of Malachi’s prophecy does not say anything about the hearts of the fathers turning toward the children. It only says that the hearts of the children will turn toward their fathers, and the reason why is so that God could fulfill the promises he made to their fathers.
The third difference is that Malachi said that if this wasn’t done, the Lord would curse the earth at his coming, whereas Moroni quoted Malachi as saying that the earth would be utterly wasted at his coming. These three differences in wording are crucial to understanding why Elijah must come before the Lord arrives in power and glory.
To understand Elijah’s mission, we first have to know what promises were made to “the fathers,” and to do that, we need to take a look at history.
The very reason why Jesus came to earth was to redeem us from our sins through his death on the cross. After his resurrection he commissioned twelve specially chosen men, known as apostles, to take the knowledge of this good news “and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19), which they attempted to do to the best of their ability.
These men had been given the priesthood, along with its keys, or authority, to administer the saving ordinances of baptism and giving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Peter was also given the keys that whatsoever he bound on earth was also bound in heaven (Matthew 16:19). (It should be noted that these “keys” were only given to Peter and not to any of the other apostles.). But less than seventy years later, the last apostle had passed away and the church of Christ was left to carry on preaching the gospel to the world without the priesthood authority that Christ had given to his apostles.
Although these men who guided the church after the apostles had died had had God’s priesthood conferred upon them yet, over time, as the gospel of Christ was spreading to more and more nations, their authority to perform the saving ordinances slowly began to disappear as the church leaders began to teach for doctrines the commandments of men, rather than that which Christ had taught. And the more they strayed from teaching the truths of heaven, the more heaven refused to recognized their authority.
What this means is that as thousands and thousands of people were being converted to Christ and being baptized for the remission of their sins, their baptism had no saving effect because it wasn’t being performed by someone whose authority was no longer accepted by heaven. As such, when these people died, they did so with none of their sins being remitted. And this condition lasted for more than fifteen hundred years until Christ returned to restore the true doctrines of his gospel along with the priesthood authority to act in his name, and part of that restoration of authority was made by Elijah.
People have wondered why would God allow his church to so quickly become corrupted and languish in apostacy for such a long period of time? We don’t fully know the answer to this question but this wasn’t the first time that such a thing had happened.
The gospel of Jesus Christ was taught to Adam and Eve, who taught it to their children, but by the time of Noah, the world had become so wicked that only eight righteous people were left on the earth. After the flood, Noah and his righteous children began to repopulate the world, but within a short time, fewer and fewer people embraced God’s ways. By the time of Abraham, nearly the entire world had begun worshipping false gods and living wicked lives. Abraham taught the ways of God to his son Isaac, who taught it to his son Jacob, who taught it to his twelve sons, but they weren’t valiant in living it. By the time these men had all passed away, their children soon found themselves living in slavery for four hundred years, where they eventually lost the knowledge of the God that their forefathers once possessed.
The Lord then sought to reclaim these children of Jacob by sending them a prophet named Moses, but they wouldn’t harken unto his voice. By the time they entered the land God had promised to Abraham, they were the only people on entire earth who knew anything at all about the one true God, and they made no attempt to share that knowledge with others. That means, with the exception of the Israelites, the entire world was living in ignorance about God and his plan for their salvation. Even so, from the time of Joshua to the time of Jeremiah, the children of Israel mostly lived an apostate idolatrous lifestyle themselves, which lead to the destruction of their entire nation and the enslavement of their people.
From the time that some of the most faithful followers of Jehovah returned to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylonian to the time of Christ, these Jews were the only ones who even tried to live according to God’s ways, while all the rest of the world, including most of Abraham’s posterity, were perpetually living in a state of complete apostacy.
Why God allowed his chosen people to fall away from the truth and allowed the rest of the world to live in ignorance of his plan for their eternal happiness during the great majority of the world’s history is something he hasn’t revealed, but what we do know is that this was all part of his plan from the beginning, therefore, we know that God had a reason for wanting these long periods of apostacy to occur.
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that before the earth was even created, as spirit children of God we agreed to come here to earth to experience mortality with all of its challenges. We also knew back then that we would sin but that our Father’s plan had a way to redeem us from those sins, and that way was by not only accepting and following Jesus Christ, but receiving the saving ordinances that would make us worthy of inheriting eternal life.
But throughout so much of earth’s history, the knowledge of that plan and the authority to perform the saving ordinances were available only to an extremely small number of people. Then what about the fate of all those who lived and died on earth who never had the opportunity to hear, let alone follow the path that leads to salvation? What is to become of them?
The Lord promised those people that their time on earth would not be in vain because he would make sure they not only had the opportunity to be taught the gospel of Christ but be given the chance to receive every ordinance that would enable them to become exalted. For this reason, the gospel is being preached to those who once lived in mortality but now live on as spirits (1 Peter 4:6).
The only reason we agreed to come to earth in the first place was so we could learn how to become more like our Father in heaven, which is what it takes to inherit eternal life, which is the kind of life that God lives. The apostle Paul taught, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). Since the resurrection from the dead consists of both our physical body and spirit entering into heaven, therefore salvation must include saving both the body and the spirit. But those in the next world no longer have a physical body, so even if they accept the gospel while living in the world of spirits, how are their bodies to become sanctified if they are turning to dust in the grave?
Elijah came to plant in the hearts of the children of men the promise God had made to their forefather that he would provide a way to save both their spirits and their bodies. As we are baptized for our ancestors in the temples of the Lord, it is our bodies that stand as a substitute for those of our deceased relatives. In this way, if those in the spirit world accept the gospel, their spirits can become sanctified, while what we do for them in the temples of the Lord on earth allows their physical bodies to be likewise sanctified through our vicarious work in their behalf.
On the other hand, if our ancestors don’t accept the gospel in the spirit world, then the work we do for them here has no effect, but if we don’t do the work for them here on earth and they do accept the gospel in the spirit world, then their salvation isn’t complete. It’s only half done. That would be like baking a cake in an over for only half the time the recipe calls for. Should that happen, then those who agreed to come into mortality when the gospel was not on the earth would have missed the opportunity to become fully saved.
This principle of vicarious work, where someone else stands in place for us, was part of the law of Moses. This was the purpose of making a sin offering, where a person’s sins were transferred to an animal, who was then put to death instead of us dying for our sins. This was also the same pattern that allowed Christ to vicariously take upon him our sins and die in our place.
Jesus endured unimaginable suffering in order to pay the penalty for the sins of each and every person who has ever lived on earth. If after going through that kind of excruciating pain that caused him to sweat great drops of blood (Luke 22:44), what a curse it would be if there were some who accepted his offer of salvation in the spirit world but who were not able to have their physical bodies saved as well. This is why, if our hearts are not turned to our forefathers and don’t do the saving work that was promised to them – a work that they can’t do for themselves – then their time here on earth would have been utterly wasted.
As explained earlier, just because someone has been given the priesthood doesn’t authorize them to perform every ordinance of salvation. A priesthood holder must be given the specific authority, or keys, for performing specific ordinances. The authority to perform baptism for the dead is not the same as those for performing baptism for the living. The keys that Elijah brought with him authorizes people to perform baptism for those who are deceased along with performing all of the other higher saving ordinances that will enable someone to become an exalted being. It is only when those ordinances are performed by some who has the proper authority that they are then recognized and accepted by heaven.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Salvation