Cover photo by Scot Facer Proctor.
When the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith in September 1823, he foretold the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods in connection with the translation of the golden plates. “When they are interpreted, the Lord will give the holy priesthood to some, and they shall begin to proclaim this gospel and baptize by water, and after that they shall have power to give the Holy Ghost by the laying on of their hands.” (Oliver Cowdrey, in Messenger and Advocate, 2 (October 1835): 199.)
In a wooded area near an obscure location called Harmony, Pennsylvania, on May 15, 1829, John the Baptist appeared as a resurrected being to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. He placed his hands on their heads and conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon them, calling them “my fellow servants” (Doctrine and Covenants 13:1). At the time, Joseph and Oliver were relatively unknown, much as Harmony was, and they were only in their twenties. It must have been overwhelming to them to be considered as “fellow servants” with John the Baptist, who had baptized the Savior and been called to prepare the way for his coming. As humbling as it sounds, the Lord calls many “fellow servants” to bring about his work upon the earth. And it is indeed a “marvelous” work. The contribution of each of his willing disciples, however small or insignificant it may seem, qualify him or her to be a fellow servant in the “great and marvelous” work of the Lord.
Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey had been diligently working on the translation of the Book of Mormon since April 7, 1829, when they came to the instructions given by Savior (probably 3 Nephi 11) on the necessity of baptism and the authority to perform it. Oliver records that it became apparent to them that “none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the Gospel.” (Ibid., October 1834):15.) They began to wonder if anyone in their day had authority to administer the true church of Christ. They were especially concerned about baptism. On May 15, 1829, they left the Smith home where they were working to find a secluded spot to pray in a wooded area nearby.
One scholar writes that this was “in fulfillment of the prophecy of Joseph of old, the son of Jacob, that the lesser priesthood would be restored in the latter days by the administration of an angel in the bush” (Charles Harrell, “The Restoration of the Priesthood,” in Studies in the Scriptures: Volume One—The Doctrine and Covenants). According to Joseph Smith, Joseph of old prophesied of blessings that “should come upon the seer of the last days and the scribe that should sit with him, and that should be ordained with him, by the hands of the angel in the bush, unto the lesser priesthood” (Cited in Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 3:101).
Whatever doubts Oliver Cowdery may still have entertained certainly vanished when the resurrected John the Baptist “descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us [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.’” The experience cemented Oliver’s faith. “Where was room for doubt? No where; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk.”
Oliver later wrote more about the incident in his characteristic flowery detail:
. . . after we had called upon him in a fervent manner, aside from the abodes of men, condescended to manifest to us his will. On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the vail [veil] was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance!—What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world were racked and distracted—while millions were grouping [groping?] as the blind for the wall, and while all men were resting upon uncertainty, as a general mass, our eyes beheld—our ears heard. As in the “blaze of day;” yes, more—above the glitter of the May Sun beam, which then shed its brilliancy over the face of nature! Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words, “I am thy fellow servant,” dispelled every fear. We listened—we gazed—we admired! ‘Twas the voice of the angel from glory—’twas a message from the Most High! and as we heard we rejoiced, while his love enkindled upon our souls, and we were rapt in the vision of the Almighty!
These were days never to be forgotten. To [sit] under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!
I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. (Messenger and Advocate, 1(October 1834): 15.)
Joseph Smith wrote a less vivid account, which was actually more informative, although it omitted the “voice of the Redeemer” which spoke peace to them at the onset of the visit of the angel.
. . . a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:
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 (Oliver Cowdery used the word that as does 3 Nephi 24:3) the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me. Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me—after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.
The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger, and baptized.
I can only imagine the feelings of John the Baptist on that occasion! He had spent his entire mortal life preparing the way for his cousin, the Redeemer of the world, ministering by virtue of the Aaronic Priesthood. After almost a year in prison, he was beheaded by Herod (see Mark 6:17-29). As he stood on the banks of the Susquehanna River in his resurrected state, watching Joseph and Oliver come to pray about baptism, his heart must have swelled within him, knowing that the time had finally come that he could restore the Aaronic Priesthood to the earth.
The Keys of the Ministering of Angels
The Baptist’s words indicate that there is a close connection between repentance and baptism, and these are closely associated with the ministering of angels. Mormon taught:
. . . my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased? Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men.
For behold, they are subject unto him, to minister according to the word of his command, showing themselves unto them of strong faith and a firm mind in every form of godliness.
And the office of their ministry is to call men unto repentance, and to fulfil and to do the work of the covenants of the Father, [example: by restoring the Priesthood] which he hath made unto the children of men, to prepare the way among the children of men, by declaring the word of Christ unto the chosen vessels of the Lord, that they may bear testimony of him. (Moroni 7:29-31)
Then Elder Dallin H. Oaks spoke on this subject in October 1998 General Conference. explaining this connection:
The scriptures recite numerous instances where an angel appeared personally. Angelic appearances to Zacharias and Mary (see Luke 1) and to King Benjamin and Nephi, the grandson of Helaman (see Mosiah 3:2; 3 Ne. 7:17–18) are only a few examples. When I was young, I thought such personal appearances were the only meaning of the ministering of angels. As a young holder of the Aaronic Priesthood, I did not think I would see an angel, and I wondered what such appearances had to do with the Aaronic Priesthood.
But the ministering of angels can also be unseen. Angelic messages can be delivered by a voice or merely by thoughts or feelings communicated to the mind. President John Taylor described “the action of the angels, or messengers of God, upon our minds, so that the heart can conceive … revelations from the eternal world” (Gospel Kingdom, sel. G. Homer Durham , 31).
Nephi described three manifestations of the ministering of angels when he reminded his rebellious brothers that (1) they had “seen an angel,” (2) they had “heard his voice from time to time,” and (3) also that an angel had “spoken unto [them] in a still small voice” though they were “past feeling” and “could not feel his words” (1 Ne. 17:45). The scriptures contain many other statements that angels are sent to teach the gospel and bring men to Christ (see Heb. 1:14; Alma 39:19; Moro. 7:25, 29, 31–32; D&C 20:35). Most angelic communications are felt or heard rather than seen.
How does the Aaronic Priesthood hold the key to the ministering of angels? The answer is the same as for the Spirit of the Lord.
In general, the blessings of spiritual companionship and communication are only available to those who are clean. As explained earlier, through the Aaronic Priesthood ordinances of baptism and the sacrament, we are cleansed of our sins and promised that if we keep our covenants we will always have His Spirit to be with us. I believe that promise not only refers to the Holy Ghost but also to the ministering of angels, for “angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ” (2 Ne. 32:3). So it is that those who hold the Aaronic Priesthood open the door for all Church members who worthily partake of the sacrament to enjoy the companionship of the Spirit of the Lord and the ministering of angels.
In October 2008 General Conference, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland delivered an address called “The Ministry of Angels.” He provides many timely insights about the nature of angels:
From the beginning down through the dispensations, God has used angels as His emissaries in conveying love and concern for His children. . . Usually such beings are not seen. Sometimes they are. But seen or unseen they are always near. Sometimes their assignments are very grand and have significance for the whole world. Sometimes the messages are more private. Occasionally the angelic purpose is to warn. But most often it is to comfort, to provide some form of merciful attention, guidance in difficult times.
In the course of life all of us spend time in “dark and dreary” places, wildernesses, circumstances of sorrow or fear or discouragement. Our present day is filled with global distress over financial crises, energy problems, terrorist attacks, and natural calamities. These translate into individual and family concerns not only about homes in which to live and food available to eat but also about the ultimate safety and well-being of our children and the latter-day prophecies about our planet. More serious than these—and sometimes related to them—are matters of ethical, moral, and spiritual decay seen in populations large and small, at home and abroad. But I testify that angels are still sent to help us, even as they were sent to help Adam and Eve, to help the prophets, and indeed to help the Savior of the world Himself.
I have spoken here of heavenly help, of angels dispatched to bless us in time of need. But when we speak of those who are instruments in the hand of God, we are reminded that not all angels are from the other side of the veil. Some of them we walk with and talk with—here, now, every day. Some of them reside in our own neighborhoods. Some of them gave birth to us, and in my case, one of them consented to marry me. Indeed heaven never seems closer than when we see the love of God manifested in the kindness and devotion of people so good and so pure that angelic is the only word that comes to mind.
In the process of praying for those angels to attend us, may we all try to be a little more angelic ourselves—with a kind word, a strong arm, a declaration of faith and “the covenant wherewith [we] have covenanted.”
There have been countless instances in my own life where I have been blessed by “angels unaware” in my times of need. And I don’t think I am alone in this experience. As Elder Holland has suggested, “may we try to be a little more angelic” in our relationships with others. Sometimes this proves difficult in the “cancel culture” in which we life. We might never know the power our smile and a kind word given to a stranger in passing.
The Sons of Levi
John the Baptist next mentions that the keys of the priesthood necessary to perform baptisms will never be taken from the earth until (that) the sons of Levi might make an “acceptable offering.” This brings many questions to our minds—Who are the sons of Levi? What offering will they make? Why is that offering so critical that the priesthood will not be taken from the earth? Why is it so important that the priesthood itself was restored to allow the offering to be accomplished? What do purging and purifying have to do with the offering?
First, who are the sons of Levi?
In biblical times, the sons of Levi kept “the charge of the tabernacle of the congregation, and the charge of the holy place.” (1 Chr. 23:32) In other words, the sons of Levi were essentially the ancient temple ordinance workers, who held the Aaronic or Levitical priesthood.
As the Restoration proceeded, more information was revealed and more keys were restored concerning the offering spoken of by John the Baptist. On September 22 and 23, 1832, the anniversary of Moroni’s visit, a great revelation was given on the priesthood. In this revelation the words of Malachi’s and John the Baptist’s prophecies were repeated, but with different and added words that amplified and gave further clarification about the necessary offering:
The sons of Moses and also the sons of Aaron shall offer an acceptable offering and sacrifice in the house of the Lord. (D&C 84:31; emphasis added.)
The sons of Moses hold the Melchizedek Priesthood—the sons of Aaron hold the Aaronic Priesthood. Moses and Aaron were both from the tribe of Levi. John the Baptist’s promise refers to both priesthoods. We further learn that the offering will be made in “the house of the Lord.” That helps explain why the sons of Levi must be purged and purified. One must be clean and worthy both to enter the temple and also to exercise priesthood authority.
What offering will the sons of Levi make?
It is not surprising that an “offering and sacrifice” should be accomplished in the temple. Offerings and sacrifices were done anciently at altars, and the altars of the temple stand at the center of all we do in the House of the Lord. The Lord adds the word acceptable to the offering. When it is made, it will be made in such a manner that the Lord can receive it. The word becomes critically important later in understanding the exact nature of the offering.
The progress of the Restoration continued. The Kirtland Temple was built, and important keys were there restored. The major themes of the priesthood were there emphasized by angelic messengers.
“Moses appeared . . . and committed . . . the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth.” The promise of Abraham was reiterated as “Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.” Elijah then returned to complete the necessary authority to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers” (D&C 110:11,12,15; emphasis added.) The gathering, the Abrahamic covenant, and the turning of hearts are all inseparably connected with temples. The proper authority was now in place, and the offering could now be made.
The Saints moved on to Nauvoo and once again were given the command to build a temple. They had learned in Missouri the importance of responding to that command. Their failure to do so was a major factor in their expulsion from Jackson County. (See D&C 97; 101:43-54.) They had learned in Kirtland that when the Lord gave a command to build a temple and the Saints did not immediately respond, they had “sinned a very grievous sin,” which the Lord compared to “walking in darkness at noon-day” (D&C 95:6.) Now, in Nauvoo, the Lord revealed the redeeming work for the dead and pressed upon the Saints the necessity of completing a temple in order to begin this great work in a place sacred enough for its importance. With the command to build his house, the Lord added a sobering warning: “I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; . . . and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God.” (D&C 124:31-32.)
Notwithstanding all the other works of the Church and the priesthood, the failure to construct a temple (where the Lord could “restore again . . . the fulness of the priesthood” [D&C 124:28] and where the offering could be made) would result in the rejection of the Church. In the minutes of the October 1841 conference, the Lord also instructed the Saints not to hold another conference until it could be held in the temple. Apparently, the Lord felt there was no need for further instructions until the most critical one of all was commenced. (History of the Church 4:426.)
The groundwork was now laid for the critical offering to be made, and it was looked forward to by all angelic messengers who had returned to earth to restore priesthood keys and authorities. However, Satan was not idle. Joseph Smith was in hiding. Knowing the Lord’s concern that the work not be stopped for any reason, Joseph gave instructions to the Saints through letters. In a letter written September 1, 1842, Joseph gave the Saints the Lord’s encouragement: “Thus saith the Lord: Let the work of my temple and all the works which I have appointed unto you, be continued on and not cease; and let your diligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be redoubled.” (D&C 127:4.)
What will make the offering “acceptable” to the Lord?
Five days later, on September 6, 1842, in a letter to the Church, Joseph Smith described the “acceptable offering.” Quoting Malachi’s prophecy once again concerning the “sons of Levi,” Joseph then added this instruction:
Let us, therefore, as a church and a people and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation. (D&C 128:24; emphasis added.)
The thing that will make this offering “acceptable” to the Lord is the fact that it is “completed.” Relating this to the mundane world of everyday life, children’s Saturday chores cannot be “acceptable” to their parents until they are “completed.” Half-completed tasks are “not acceptable.”
At least part of the offering Malachi, John the Baptist, and other prophets had in view was a book containing the completed ordinance work for all the dead. It will take the Millennium to achieve that culmination and make it “worthy of all acceptation,” for how can the Lord accept it until all of his children who will receive salvation and eternal life have been provided with the opportunity?
As with many prophecies, the offering spoken of has other fulfillments, but it is significant that the one that Lord chose to emphasize in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants is that of the work for the dead. Without that offering, the whole earth would be wasted at the Lord’s coming. How appropriate that the offering we are to place on the altars of the temple is a book.
Adam and Eve kept a Book of Remembrance. Before the internet, most families involved in genealogy had a literal Book of Remembrance (remember those large rectangular books?) which contained the records of our dead ancestors—pedigree charts and family group sheets. I’ve often thought of that book in relation to John the Baptist’s prophecy about the sons of Levi. Now the book has been replaced by digital records online, printed temple patron cards, etc. Not so easy for us to put it all in a book. The Lord’s book is much more expansive. But the imagery is still powerful.
What do purging and purifying have to do with the offering?
D&C 128:24: “Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand; and who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For . . . he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.”
In a Bible study of the book of Malachi 3, a group read verse three: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver” with great puzzlement. The women wondered what this statement meant about the nature of God. One of the women offered to find out about the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible study. She made an appointment with a silversmith to watch him work without mentioning anything about the reason beyond her curiosity about the process of refining silver. She watched as the silver smith held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up. He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest so as to burn away all the impurities. The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot—then she thought again about the verse, that he sits as a refiner and purifier of silver. She asked the silver smith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time the silver was being refined. The man answered that, yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire. If the silver was left even a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed. The woman was silent for a moment. Then she asked the silver smith, “How do you know when the silver is fully refined?” He smiled at her and answered, “Oh, that’s easy—when I see my image in it.”
This story reminds me of Alma 5:14: “Have ye received his image in your countenance?”
I love way the Lord brings forth his kingdom. He reveals just enough of his plan to whet the appetite of his chosen servants to “excite them” to “feel after” the object of their desires. He is wise in restraining himself by revealing his doctrine morsel by morsel, until at last, the delicious truth is manifest and “a feast of fat things” can be enjoyed. Moroni first quoted the Malachi prophecy and promised that the priesthood would be revealed. John the Baptist next came to begin its revelation and added that the priesthood would remain on the earth that the sons of Levi might make an offering in righteousness to the Lord. Later, it was revealed that the offering would be made in the temple. Finally in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith’s letter, now recorded as D&C 128, invited all the Saints to participate in the offering, and the offering was identified. It would be a book containing all the records of completed ordinance work for the dead. All this was done to fulfill the purpose of the earth’s creation—to create a place for families to live, grow, and be sealed together eternally. Otherwise, the earth would not be able to fulfill the “measure of its creation.”
Since that time, tremendous effort and resources have been expended to make the offering “acceptable” to the Lord by completing it. At the time of this writing, Sister Jones at the Temple Department of the Church informed me that there were 239 temples (in various stages of planning and construction) dotting the face of the earth. What a great blessing that we as “fellow servants” have been able to take part in this “great and marvelous work.”