On the keys of the ministering of angels…
Posted by joespencer on April 5, 2007
I hesitate to post this for a number of reasons. One is that I’m going to be on the road all day, so I won’t be able to see any responses until tomorrow sometime. Another, more important, is that I’m not sure how well it fits the aims of the blog, so let me see if I can’t justify it with the following. As you read the below, focus on two things: first, pay attention to the scriptures in particular (that is, I would much rather read responses to particular interpretations than to broad approach); second, think of any other scriptures this model might open up for thinking. If I can encounter comments that hit on these two themes, I will be able to transfer quite a bit of material to the wiki from the discussion. Anyway, here is my brief paper on the keys of the ministering of angels. (Let me mention two other details: first, the paper is only a rough draft, written in maybe two hours; second, the paper does not in any way put on display my teaching style, but rather represents my attempt to write for an Ensign audience… at which I probably fail.)
Holding the Keys of the Ministering of Angels
Joseph M. Spencer
If the possibility of a latter-day restoration opened in 1820 when the Father and the Son appeared personally to Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove, the realization of that restoration did not begin until Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery kneeled in the presence of John the Baptist on the bank of the Susquehanna River on May 15, 1829. Only then and afterward were keys given to the eventual president and the eventual assistant president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Given in pure grace—and no theme pervades Joseph’s own accounts of the years 1820-1829 more than that of pure grace—these keys, because they were held again by men on the earth, marked the beginning of the realization of the plan of redemption as Joseph later explained to an audience in Nauvoo:
“[T]hose men to whom these keys have been given,… they without us cannot be made perfect. These men are in heaven, but their children are on the earth. Their bowels yearn over us. God sends down men for this reason. ‘And the Son of Man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that give offense and them that do iniquity.’ (Matthew 13:41.) All these authoritative characters will come down and join hand in hand in bringing about this work.” (TPJS, 159)
How literal that “hand in hand” business really is must have been quite clear to Joseph and Oliver as they felt the weight of the resurrected Baptist’s hands on their heads in 1829. Perhaps more significant, however, were the words the Baptist spoke as he laid his hands on them, words we ask the young men of the Church to memorize in order to fulfill their “Duty to God”:
“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 the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.” (D&C 13:1)
It is customary to read these words primarily in terms of what Joseph and Oliver did only a few moments after they first heard them: what was restored that day was the authority to baptize, to seal upon the repentant the name of the Son so as to effect a most solemn and sacred covenant with the Father. As eternal and as necessary as baptism most obviously is, in the historical record Joseph Smith mentions something else as happening between ordination and baptism. He explains, “[John] 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.” Only after this promise did John command the two “to go and be baptized.” (JS-H 1:70) And this order of things follows quite carefully the words of the ordination: as the Baptist first bestowed the “keys of the ministering of angels,” he first promised that other messengers would be coming, and as he bestowed only secondly the “keys… of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins,” he secondly commanded Joseph and Oliver to go down into the water.
From these details, it almost sounds as if the primary concern of the Aaronic priesthood is the ministering of angels. And perhaps this makes perfect sense: what purpose would baptism serve—especially from the point of view of a Latter-day Saint who believes in on-going revelation—if it were not a preparation to receive further light and knowledge from true messengers still to come, “authoritative characters” that “God sends down”?
Unfortunately, the meaning of the keys of the ministering of angels is too seldom understood by members of the Church, perhaps most especially by the young men of the Aaronic priesthood who hold precisely those keys as they await the greater keys of the Melchizedek priesthood. I imagine that the ignorance on the part of the latter derives precisely from the lack of understanding on the part of the former. Perhaps a few words here on the subject might help parents and leaders of the young men of the Church to teach this vital doctrine more often, more clearly, and more scripturally. In order to offer a few words on the subject, however, it is necessary to work very carefully through the plan of redemption as it is laid out in the scriptures—where it is something very different from the circles and lines we are all accustomed to drawing on the chalkboard.
The Scriptural Plan of Redemption
The plan of redemption, as we experience it, begins in a fallen world. It is as much a place of violence and oppression (being the realm of false kings) as it is a place of idolatries and ideologies (being also the diocese of false priests). There is a reason that “we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for… the redemption”: all is not well in the earth. (Rom 8:23) If indeed “we are saved by hope,” we have to take comfort in the fact that “hope that is seen is not hope,” since it is so seldom that the few who are privileged to do so see God. (Rom 8:24) Like the situation in which Adam and Eve found themselves, we are confronted by “Cherubims [guardian angels], and a flaming sword which turn[s] every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.” (Gen 3:24) And this can be interpreted all too easily to suggest “that there [is] no possible chance that [we] should live forever” nor that justice will ever be done. (Alma 12:21)
Alma the Younger was presented with just this interpretation of just this Old Testament scripture. While teaching in the wicked city of Ammonihah, he was countered by “a chief ruler among them” named Antionah, who tried to confound Alma by offering as irrefutable this profoundly negative understanding of the cherubim and flaming sword God placed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden. (Alma 12:20-21) Alma’s answer—which is two chapters long!—offers a fascinating summary of the plan of redemption and connects this summary up with the meaning and purposes of the priesthood.
The first part of Alma’s answer is quite simple: because Adam and Eve were cut off from God and appointed to die, “this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead.” (Alma 12:24) But such a “probationary state” would have accomplished little, if Adam and Eve were left without any understanding of the plan that would—of the Savior who would—redeem them: “after God had appointed that these things should come unto man, behold, then he [God] saw that it was expedient that man should know concerning the things whereof he had appointed unto them.” (Alma 12:28)
The situation Alma describes here is too easily passed over. When Moses was given instructions on how to make the veil of the tabernacle, which separated the presence of God in the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place, he was told to “make a vail of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen of cunning work: with cherubims shall it be made.” (Ex 26:31) That is, the veil of the Old Testament temple had cherubim sewn right into it, so that to cross through the veil was “to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels,” as Brigham Young said. (DBY, 416) In effect, the situation Alma presented to the people of Ammonihah was something like this: a veil Adam and Eve did not know how to cross hung between them and God, and they needed to learn how to pass through it.
“Therefore [God] sent angels to converse with them.” (Alma 12:29) If Adam and Eve learned “the plan of redemption” through this experience, then it is quite clear what this phrase means: “the plan of redemption” is the plan that results in a rent veil. The Lord Himself says as much to the Brother of Jared: “the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence.” (Ether 3:13) Moroni adds, “because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil.” (Ether 3:19)
But it took more than simple instruction to teach Adam and Eve “the plan of redemption,” as Alma makes clear. The knowledge could only be given along with “commandments… that they should not do evil, the penalty thereof being a second death.” (Alma 12:32) The angels brought to Adam and Eve not only further light and knowledge, but also commandments, or perhaps better, covenants. These covenants were given along with an ordination: “when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children… [He] ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.” (Alma 13:1) Alma explains that the ordination was such that “thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.” (Alma 13:2) If they thereby “were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God,” (Alma 13:12) that is, if they thereby were enabled to rend the veil, it was precisely in anticipation of what Jesus Christ Himself would do eventually: “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice [while on the cross], yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom.” (Matt 27:50-51)
That this ordination came to Adam and Eve specifically seems clear from the Book of Moses. There we find Adam and Eve offering sacrifices simply by obedience when an angel suddenly appears, and, because of their faithfulness, confirms that the sacrifices they had been offering were “a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father.” (Moses 5:7) The angel then gives Adam the authority to do “all that [he does] in the name of the Son,” authority Adam and Eve immediately took up in “ma[king] all things known unto their sons and their daughters.” (Moses 5:8, 12)
It is important to notice in all of this that Adam’s receiving a priesthood “after the order of his [God’s] Son” should be understood as his being ordained to the Melchizedek priesthood. Not only are we told that the original name of the Melchizedek priesthood was “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God,” (D&C 107:3) but we are told that “this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God,” the key, that is, to part the veil and to “see the face of God, even the Father.” (D&C 84:19, 22)
But we have too many details, and it is certainly time to draw them all back together into a single, coherent picture. In fact, the plan of redemption, as it is articulated in these scriptures, is rather simple. First, we find ourselves in a fallen world, separated from God’s presence by a veil. But then God sends angels to teach about the redemption to be had in the Son of God. These angels come and teach these things precisely by ordaining the faithful to the Melchizedek priesthood and thereby giving them the keys to unlock the gate of heaven, that is, to part the veil. Under that authority, and with the keys to receive revelations directly from God, the ordained are sent to teach others the same things, almost as if they were angels. (Cf. Isa 6) In short, the plan of redemption is simply this: we wait in the fallen world for messengers sent from God to give us the keys of the priesthood that are necessary for us to pass through the veil and back into the presence of God, there to receive further instructions.
A Problem with the Plan of Redemption
Alma himself knew quite well that there was a problem with the plan of redemption as he laid it out for the people of Ammonihah. He later confronted the anti-Christ, Korihor, directly, at the conclusion of which he read Korihor’s written words, “behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel.” (Alma 30:53) In fact, several scriptures make reference to the devil appearing as an angel of light. (Cf. 2 Cor 11:14; 2 Ne 9:9) One of these assures us that Joseph Smith himself was quite acquainted with the fact: he mentions in a letter having heard “[t]he voice of Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light!” (D&C 128:20) But if Joseph’s mention of this danger confirms its seriousness—that a ministering angel might be, not of God, but a devil in disguise—it also announces a way to come through it securely: there is some way to “detect” whether or not a messenger is from God.
In fact, a couple of details in Joseph’s mention of this danger are interesting and helpful. For one, he makes it quite clear that he learned how to detect false messengers specifically from Adam (Michael), who apparently had had some experience with such encounters. This seems to suggest that there was more to the story than Alma and Moses let on: Adam and Eve were faithfully performing the commanded sacrifices while they waited for further word from God, but that does not mean that the first angel that showed up was sent from God. Adam and Eve had to know how to tell whether messengers were true or not. That is, they needed “keys” with which to “know whether any administration is from God.” (D&C 129:9) Whenever and wherever Joseph encountered “the devil when he appeared as an angel of light,” he seems to have learned on the occasion the “grand keys” he later shared with the saints. (D&C 129)
But what did Adam and Eve have that could have prepared them to detect false messengers from true ones? Perhaps there is a clue to this that we have overlooked in the Book of Moses account we have already dealt with. Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden with the commandment that “they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord.” (Moses 5:5) In order to perform these sacrifices, Adam must have held the appropriate priesthood, in fact the Aaronic priesthood, which holds the authority to “offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.” (D&C 13:1) If Adam went into the fallen world with the authority of the Aaronic priesthood with the task of detecting true messengers from false messengers, it is perhaps all-important that the priesthood he held provided him with the “keys of the ministering of angels.” (D&C 84:26)
In fact, it might now be quite a bit clearer what those keys are: Adam needed keys by which he might not only detect false messengers but also receive true messengers, and those keys seem quite clearly to be the “keys of the ministering of angels.” It is perhaps in this sense that the Aaronic priesthood is called “preparatory”: Adam first held the keys necessary to receive angelic visitors who would bring him other keys, in fact, the keys of passing into the presence of God. If these latter keys would allow Adam to cross the veil, the former keys prepared him for those higher keys by allowing him to reject false messengers and to receive true messengers, in fact to learn from his own experience to know the good from the evil. In short, the Aaronic priesthood seems to have been what Adam needed in order to be prepared to entertain the true messengers who would bring him the Melchizedek priesthood and thus introduce him into the order of the Son. It is perhaps in this sense that the Aaronic “priesthood also continueth and abideth forever with the [Melchizedek] priesthood which is after the holiest order of God.” (D&C 84:18)
Our Young Men
In light of all the above, is it a passing matter that we give our young men the keys of the Aaronic priesthood? Are we too easily convinced that this priesthood is “preparatory” only in that the Young Men program of the Church can make our sons better citizens, better providers, or better boy scouts? Or are we introducing them to the possibility of eventually receiving a priesthood that is “after the holiest order of God”? Are we even taking that higher priesthood so seriously? If the Aaronic priesthood and its keys of the ministering of angels “shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness,” do we recognize that this will only happen at “the day of his coming… when he appeareth… like a refiner’s fire”? (Mal 3:2) Will He have to “purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness” precisely because we have done nothing to prepare them for that day? (Mal 3:3) It is my prayer—and I hope it is our prayer—that we as a people will take the overwhelming responsibility of the priesthood more seriously, and that we will therefore teach that same responsibility to our young men.