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Whenever I have read the New Testament, I have always placed myself in the text and wondered how I would have reacted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Would I have followed him in faith like His Apostles? Would I have resisted or rejected his teachings like the Pharisees and Sadducees? Or would I have been indifferent and uninterested like so many others that he came across?
I have learned that this is not a question we need to wonder about. The answer is simple. The Lord has revealed that the simplest way to measure how well we follow Jesus Christ today is by how well we follow His living prophets.
At the Organization of the Church
The first official meeting of the restored Church of Christ followed a similar pattern to today’s Sacrament meetings. They gathered together, conducted the business of sustaining Church officers, administered the Sacrament, and confirmed new members by the laying on of hands. On that day, April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were originally sustained simply as spiritual “teachers in the things of the kingdom of God” (HC 1:78). But before the meeting concluded, the Lord interrupted it with an important announcement. The revelation he gave to His newly organized Church is today known as Doctrine and Covenants section 21. It begins, with these words:
Behold, there shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ. (D&C 21:1)
Apparently, the Lord wanted to make it clear from the very beginning that the leader of His Church was more than simply a “teacher” or a “presiding officer,” he was a prophet. We continue that pattern today by sustaining the President of the Church as prophet, seer, and revelator. We also sustain his counselors in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators.
The terms prophet, seer, and revelator refer to related but distinctive functions or roles of the President of the Church. The word for prophet in both Hebrew and Greek translates to “spokesman” and refers to his responsibility to speak for God. A seer is literally a see-er and refers to his ability to spiritually see the things of God. A revelator is simply one who is authorized to receive revelation from God. Thus, as the prophet, seer, and revelator, the President of the Church is authorized to speak, see, and hear the things of God and communicate that to the Church. His counselors in the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles share this same responsibility under his direction.
But these terms may not have been completely understood by these early Church members, so the Lord explained at the organization of the Church what the role of a prophet is and what our responsibility is toward the President of the Church. In this same revelation, the Lord continued:
Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith. (D&C 21:5-6)
“Thou shalt!” That is the famous language of the Ten Commandments. The Lord is making it clear that he is giving a commandment to his newly organized Church, and the first commandment he is giving them could be summarized as this: Thou shalt follow the Prophet!
But the Lord does more than just give this commandment, he explains why they must do it. They are to follow the prophet because his words are the Lord’s words. As the Lord’s messenger or spokesman, he is authorized to speak for the Lord. Therefore, his words are to be received “as if from mine own mouth” (D&C 21:6), saith the Lord. On another occasion the Lord reaffirmed this point declaring that, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38, see footnote 5a).
The implications of this are powerful. This means that to follow the prophet is to follow the Lord. It implies that the main way to measure how well we follow Christ today is by how well we follow his living prophets. If we want to know if we would have faithfully followed Christ in New Testament times or if we would have rejected him, we only need to ask ourselves a simple question: How do I respond to the living prophets the Lord has sent to speak and act in his name?
Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained how this principle applies to the Prophet Joseph Smith. He taught, “We can take it [the message of D&C 21] as a test to measure personal discipleship … The test of discipleship is how totally and completely and fully we believe the word that was revealed through Joseph Smith, and how effectively we echo or proclaim that word to the world” (McConkie, Ensign June 1980).
As this principle applies to the prophet Joseph Smith, so it applies to the current President of the Church and collectively to all the living prophets who stand at his side. Our personal discipleship to Christ today is measured by how well we follow his living prophets in the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Give Heed to All His Words
In giving this commandment to follow the Prophet, the Lord made it clear that Church members were to obey “all his words” (D&C 21:4). This is an interesting instruction because we know that prophets are not infallible. They can make mistakes. They can express personal opinions that may not perfectly represent the Lord’s view on the matter. Not all their words are the word of God, so why would the Lord command us specifically to follow all the words of the prophet?
The Lord seemed to be anticipating the danger of picking and choosing what words from the Prophet we would follow. There is always the temptation to reject the word of God simply because it does not fit with our own attitudes and opinions. As President Ezra Taft Benson explained, “The proud wish God would agree with them. They aren’t interested in changing their opinions to agree with God’s” (Benson, Ensign May 1989). The problem with this is that we may reject something we really need to hear just because we don’t want to hear it. When we do this, we put our own salvation at risk. That is why the safer course is to simply follow “all his words,” as the Lord instructed (D&C 21:4).
Some may object to this, calling it “blind obedience.” But it is not blind obedience to follow the teachings of a man you know is a prophet—it is “faith obedience” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball p. 139-140). Once a person gains a testimony that we are led by true prophets of God, then to follow them is an act of faith not blindness. And when we do, we have a promise from the Lord. As President Russell M. Nelson explained, “You may not always understand every declaration of a living prophet. But when you know a prophet is a prophet, you can approach the Lord in humility and faith and ask for your own witness about whatever His prophet has proclaimed” (Nelson, CES Fireside Jan. 10, 2016).
In All Patience and Faith
Not only does the Lord instruct us to obey all the words of the prophet, but he also cautions us that doing so will require “all patience and faith” (D&C 21:5). This is because, as President Ezra Taft Benson explained, “It is the living prophet who really upsets the world. ‘Even in the Church,’ said President Kimball, ‘many are prone to garnish the sepulchers of yesterday’s prophets and mentally stone the living ones.” (Instructor, 95:527.) Why? Because the living prophet gets at what we need to know now, and the world prefers that prophets either be dead or worry about their own affairs … How we respond to the words of a living prophet when he tells us what we need to know, but would rather not hear, is a test of our faithfulness” (Benson, Liahona June 1981, emphasis added).
Unfortunately, this test of faithfulness is one that not everyone passes. Instead of obeying the prophet’s words in patience and faith, some choose to criticize and condemn the prophets of God for unpopular teachings, particularly on social and political issues. The Prophet Joseph Smith warned of where this leads when he taught, “It is an eternal principle: … That man [or woman] who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they [Church leaders] are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, p. 318). This is a road that we have all seen too many travel in recent years.
This is why the revelation found in Doctrine and Covenants section 21 is as valuable and relevant today as when it was first given. As President Harold B. Lee reminded us, “The only safety we have as members of this church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church in that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through His prophet, ‘as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; … as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith’ (D&C 21:4–5).
There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord Himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory’ (D&C 21:6)” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, p. 84-85).
It is interesting to note the promise that the Lord makes to those who follow his living prophets. He assures them that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against you” (D&C 21:6). Simply stated, this means that if we follow the living prophet he will lead us to heaven. But there is more to this message. Although this phrase may not be recognized by many today, it would have almost certainly been recognized by the early Saints gathered together in that original Church meeting. They would have known that this was the same promise Jesus Christ made about Peter when he called him to hold the “keys of the kingdom” as the future president of the New Testament Church (Matt. 16:18-19). By quoting it here, the Lord is subtly reminding us that the keys Christ gave to Peter, Peter gave to Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:72). Joseph Smith was, in effect, called to be the new Peter, the prophet-leader of Christ’s Church. And the same promises applied to Joseph Smith that the Lord first made to Peter.
Those same promises apply today to our living prophet because those same keys once held by Peter have been passed on in rightful succession from Joseph Smith to the current President of the Church. He and his counselors are our modern Peter, James, and John. They are the Lord’s prophets, seers, and revelators. They, along with the other Apostles, are his true messengers and if we give heed to their words they will lead us to eternal life and salvation, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against [us]” (D&C 21:6; Matt 16:18). Truly, to follow them today is to follow Jesus Christ.