Keys of the Aaronic Priesthood
John A. Tvedtnes
[This article is an expansion of an earlier article “John the Baptist and the Keys of Baptism,” published in Insights: An Ancient Window 19/6 (June 1999).]
“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)
When the resurrected John the Baptist came to ordain Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to the Aaronic Priesthood on 15 May 1829, he indicated that this priesthood held certain “keys.” A Christian document from Ethiopia, thought to date to the fifteenth century but containing older concepts, speaks of “John the Baptist unto whom was given the key of baptism.”[i] It is therefore interesting that John mentioned “baptism by immersion or the remission of sins” as one of the rights held by the keys he restored. Similarly, in D&C 107:20 we read that “The power and authority of the lesser, or Aaronic Priesthood, is to hold the keys of the ministering of angels, and to administer in outward ordinances, the letter of the gospel, the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Likewise, D&C 84:26-27 speaks of “the lesser priesthood . . . which priesthood holdeth the key of the ministering of angels and the preparatory gospel; Which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments, which the Lord in his wrath caused to continue with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John, whom God raised up, being filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb” (cf. Luke 1:15, 41, 44).
The fourth-century AD bishop Ephraim of Syria wrote that “because John [the Baptist] also was the treasurer of baptism, the Lord of the stewardship [Christ] came to him to receive from him the keys of the house of reconciliation . . . Therefore, because the Spirit was with the Son, He came to John to receive from him baptism” (Homily on Our Lord 53).[ii]
Another document of related interest comes from the Mandaeans, who claim to be descendants of the disciples of John the Baptist, whom they call by his Arabic name Yahya. Called Haran Gawaitha, the text says of John that “when he was seven years old, [the angel] Anush ‘Uthra came and wrote the ABC (a ba ga) for him, until when he was twenty-two years old, he had learnt all the priestly-craft (naširutha).”[iii] The idea that at a young age John the Baptist was visited by an angel who delivered priesthood training is in general agreement with D&C 84:28, where we read that John “was baptized while he was yet in his childhood, and was ordained by the angel of God at the time he was eight days old unto this power, to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews, and to make straight the way of the Lord before the face of his people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord, in whose hand is given all power.” This is evidently what Christ had in mind when he declared that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John” (Matthew 11:13; see also Luke 16:16) and that “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11) and that John was “more than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9).
[i] Sir Ernest A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Mysteries of the Heavens and the Earth and Other Works of Bakhayla Mika’el (Zosimas) (Oxford, 1935), 105.
[ii] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 13:329.
[iii] E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1962), 4.