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We’re going to stay primarily in Doctrine and Covenants 81. In this revelation, the Lord calls Frederick G. Williams to be Joseph’s counselor. This revelation was originally given to Jesse Gause, but after Jesse apostatized, Frederick G. Williams took his place and the name was replaced.
Doctrine and Covenants 81:1-2
1 Verily, verily, I say unto you my servant Frederick G. Williams: Listen to the voice of him who speaketh, to the word of the Lord your God, and hearken to the calling where with you are called, even to be a high priest in my church, and a counselor unto my servant Joseph Smith, Jun.;
2 Unto whom I have given the keys of the kingdom, which belong always unto the Presidency of the High Priesthood:
I know that these are just two verses in a few sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, and because of that, I think we often mistake its importance.
In these verses, the Lord calls Frederick as a counselor to Joseph, and He declares that the keys of the kingdom always belong to the Presidency of the High Priesthood. Presidency of the High Priesthood might not be a term you’re familiar with. However, let’s look at what we are familiar with. Joseph is a prophet, and the Lord just called a counselor for him. We’ve got a prophet today, and he has counselors. We’re familiar with the term First Presidency. Well, “Presidency of the High Priesthood” was simply a step in the direction of forming the First Presidency. I will probably use those terms somewhat interchangeably through this post because I want to focus on teaching about the priesthood itself. Let’s read those verse 2 one more time and try to make sense of the next part.
Doctrine and Covenants 81:2 Unto whom I have given the keys of the kingdom, which belong always unto the Presidency of the High Priesthood:
The keys of the kingdom always belong to the Presidency of the High Priesthood. In our day, the keys of the kingdom always belong to the First Presidency.
We often hear of priesthood keys, but do we really understand what they are? We know that we need priesthood power and authority to do things, but do we really understand why?
My goal here is to attempt to explain the priesthood and priesthood keys in very simple ways by examining what our world would look like without them.
The priesthood has two meanings, and we often use it interchangeably though there are very slight differences. Priesthood is God’s power. Jesus Christ created the earth? Priesthood. Jesus Christ performed miracles? Priesthood. If we can wrap our minds (even slightly) around the idea of the power of God, we can understand what the priesthood is. It’s God’s power.
The second “meaning” is very close. We talk about the priesthood in mortality as the power that God has given to His servants. These two definitions are very similar in the idea that they are both God’s power. However, sometimes we’re talking about God’s power in general, and other times, we’re talking about the power that God gave to us on earth.
So why priesthood? Why is this such an essential part of our church? What does it really do? I want to look at it in terms of baptism.
When you get married, the person who marries you has to have some kind of legal authority in order for your marriage to be recognized. You can’t go out into the woods with your significant other and then come back out and declare yourselves married. I mean, you can if you really want to, but it won’t hold any legal power. If you want the government to recognize the marriage, then it has to be done with the authority of the government.
The same goes for baptism. It doesn’t matter how many religious degrees you hold. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen angels or heard the voice of God. It doesn’t matter if you’re near perfect. You don’t have the power within yourself to make things legal in the government of heaven. Our mortal lives hold no power beyond the grave that is not given to us by God.
You can get baptized by something other than the priesthood authority, and it’s legit. For this life. Heaven has a government. It’s organized. We have no authority to make binding agreements for heaven’s government unless it is given to us from heaven.
The priesthood is God’s power. Christ, on the other side of the veil, went to John the Baptist and says, “You have my permission and my power to go give the Aaronic priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.” So John the Baptist goes and gives them the Aaronic priesthood. Suddenly, when Joseph and Oliver are baptized, it’s also legal in heaven because the Lord made it legal.
And this isn’t just about being legal in heaven. It’s about the fact that you need actual, real power in order to make something work. I don’t get to go to college, get a religious degree, come out and baptize someone and say, “Congratulations. You now have full access to the Savior’s atonement.” I got my degree from another human! If you want something to be legal on earth and in heaven, and if you want the power to literally bring the atonement into someone’s life, it has to be by the power of God, Himself.
So if the priesthood is the power of God, what are the keys?
Keys simply organize the priesthood.
In verse 2 of Section 81, the Lord calls them the keys of the kingdom. So let’s pretend they’re literal keys.
The Lord has all of the keys; He did not give all of His keys to us mortals. He did not give us the key of creation nor did He give us the key of resurrection. He did give us some keys though, and He gave them directly to the First Presidency.
So the Lord has this big kingdom; it is surrounded by a gigantic, unscalable and impenetrable wall. He goes to Joseph. He hands Joseph some of the keys. One of these keys unlocks the door to the outer wall. Suddenly, people are allowed to go into the kingdom.
But don’t get too carried away! You see, some day, Joseph will have to stand before the Lord and say, “This is what happened within the kingdom while I had your keys.” Joseph will have to account for the keys; he makes the decisions. Joseph will be held responsible, and the Lord expects Joseph to act (as best as he can) how the Lord would act. After all, it’s still the Lord’s kingdom. Just because the Lord let Joseph have a key to His kingdom doesn’t make it Joseph’s kingdom. If I gave my car keys to someone, I am giving them permission to use it but I want them to treat my car the way I would treat my car.
Now Joseph is running into a little bit of a problem here. This kingdom is actually really, really big, and there are tons and tons of keys that open up different portions of this kingdom. It would be extremely difficult for Joseph to try and keep an eye on everything that’s happening in every portion of the kingdom. So what does Joseph do?
Joseph starts to pass out keys to people he truly trusts. The Lord helps him choose too. So Joseph gives a key to Edward Partridge (who is one of the bishops). Edward now has to be accountable to Joseph for what happens in those parts of the kingdom that Edward has unlocked. Then Joseph takes Edward’s accounting and can account back to the Lord.
There are people who are in charge of different things in the Lord’s kingdom, and it’s all organized.
Going back to verse 2 one more time, the Lord said the keys belong to the First Presidency. What would happen if the Lord only gave us priesthood but no keys?
Well, it would probably look a lot like the rest of the Christian world. Many people in the Christian religion believe they have the authority to act in the name of God and to speak for Him. What does the Christian world have? Confusion. Two preachers, sometimes even from the same denomination, can teach very different things from the bible. Who is right? Who gets to actually say? Who should you listen to?
If the Lord only gave priesthood and didn’t organize it by keys, then anyone could stand up and pretend to speak for the Lord. Anyone could open the doors in the kingdom and do whatever they want regardless of whether that’s what the Lord actually wants. A random man in the middle of nowhere could stand and say that he’s had a revelation for the entire church. When people ask him, “Well who do you think you are? What makes you think you can receive revelation for the whole church?” He could answer, “I’ve been given the priesthood.”
The Lord has given His power to us on earth because He loves us. He wants us to have access to His atonement, and the only way that’s going to happen is if He lets us use His power. He has also given us keys so that we don’t have to be confused. He organized it. We know who actually speaks for the Lord because the Lord declared it Himself.
The keys belong to the First Presidency.
Now, all of this obviously falls back on whether you’ve come to believe in The Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants or whether you believe the church is true. However, even in this one small principle, we can receive a testimony directly from Heavenly Father.
Did the Lord really say that He would work in this manner? Can we really trust a prophet? It makes logical sense, but it is only by the power of the Spirit that we can know if this is His truly chosen method.
In Section 81, the Lord takes yet another step in organizing His priesthood on the earth so that we can have the power we need to return to Him and so we can also know where to look for His will.