Keys of the Priesthood
John A. Tvedtnes
“The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church-To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. 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, agreeable to the covenants and commandments.” (D&C 107:18-20)
Joseph Smith introduced the concept of keys as the governing power by which priesthood functions on the earth. He declared that the Melchizedek Priesthood “holds the highest authority which pertains to the Priesthood, and the keys of the Kingdom of God in all ages of the world to the latest posterity on the earth, and is the channel through which all knowledge, doctrine, the plan of salvation, and every important matter is revealed from heaven” (History of the Church 4:207). These keys are held by apostles and are controlled by the President of the Church, who is the senior apostle.[i]
Various priesthood keys were restored through the prophet Joseph Smith by heavenly messengers who had held those keys during their own mortal lives (D&C 65:1-2; 90:2-3; 97:14).[ii] The first of these was John the Baptist, who restored the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood on 15 May 1829 (D&C 13; 27:7-8; Joseph Smith-History 1:69-72). Shortly thereafter, the apostles Peter, James, and John restored the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood (D&C 27:12-13; 128:20; Joseph Smith-History 1:72). On 3 April 1836, the ancient prophets Elias, Moses, and Elijah, restored other keys (D&C 110:11-16; see also D&C 27:6, 9).
Peter, James and John
In an early revelation, Joseph Smith learned that Christ told Peter that he, James, and John would hold the keys: “And I will make thee to minister for him and for thy brother James; and unto you three I will give this power and the keys of this ministry until I come” (D&C 7:7).
The Bible affirms that Jesus promised his chief apostle, “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19). The Roman Catholic Church uses this as evidence that the bishops of Rome, the first of whom is said to have been ordained by Peter, were to head the Church after the passing of the apostles. Other churches dispute this.
Joseph Smith and subsequent leaders of the restored Church have taught that all of the apostles hold keys, but that the senior apostle (e.g., Peter) is the one who presides and thus exercises all the keys. That all of Christ’s apostles held the keys is confirmed in Matthew 18:18, in which Christ addresses all of the twelve (using the plural “ye”), making them the same promise that he made to Peter that
“Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you [the apostles] shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
The fourth-century AD Syrian Christian writer Ephraim had the same view as Joseph Smith regarding these keys. He wrote that “although the twelve had keys they had nevertheless been given to Simon, because he was indeed the head; upon his preaching [Jesus] said He would build his Church” (Commentary on Genesis 6).[iii] Jerome (died AD 420) expressed a similar view: “But you say, the Church was rounded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism. But why was not John chosen, who was a virgin? Deference was paid to age, because Peter was the elder: one who was a youth, I may say almost a boy, could not be set over men of advanced age” (Against Jovinianus 1.26).[iv]
Something significant occurred between the time Jesus promised keys to Peter in Matthew 16 and when he declared that all of the apostles had power to bind and loose in chapter 18. The intervening chapter 17 describes Christ’s transfiguration on the mount, in the presence of his three chief apostles, Peter, James, and John, and the appearance of the ancient prophets Moses and Elijah (called by the Greek form Elias).[v] Of this event, Joseph Smith declared, “The Savior, Moses, and Elias, gave the keys to Peter, James, and John, on the mount when they were transfigured before him” (History of the Church 3:387).[vi]
The Sealing Power
Latter-day Saints typically think of priesthood keys in terms of presiding authority and sealing of families, including work for the dead. Indeed, Joseph Smith cited Matthew 16:18-19 in reference to baptism for the dead and the sealing of children to their parents, whether dead or alive (D&C 128:10-11, 14, 18). His explanation is best understood by returning to Christ’s words to Peter, in which he said of the Church that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” then immediately added, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).
Some critics of the restored Church have argued that this passage means that there could not have been an apostasy, since Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. Such an interpretation, however, assumes that gates are wont to attack institutions such as a church. In reality, gates are intended to keep people in (as in a prison) or to keep others out (as in a walled city under siege by the enemy). The gates of hell (Greek hades, the realm of the dead) are intended to keep people in. But the keys of the kingdom can open the gates of hell, allowing the Church to enter and the message of salvation to be declared among the dead.[vii] Joseph Smith taught that “there is a way to release the spirits of the dead; that is by the power and authority of the Priesthood-by binding not loosing on earth” (History of the Church 4:425).
This explains why Christ told the apostle John, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Revelation 1:18). Christ also described himself as “he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth” (Revelation 3:7), citing a prophecy of Isaiah, “And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open” (Isaiah 22:22). The concept of shutting and opening is the same as that of sealing and loosing.
It is Christ who eternally holds the keys, though he allows angels, prophets, and apostles to use them. Thus, though he holds the keys of death and hell, the apostle John saw in vision an angel possessing the key of the bottomless pit in which Satan will be imprisoned during the millennium (Revelation 9:1; 20:1-3).
Ephraim of Syria described Christ’s eternal possession of the keys as well as the confirmation of these keys at the hand of the man Simeon, who blessed the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:25-35). Note how he compares this Simeon with Simeon or Simon Peter, the apostle to whom Jesus promised the keys:
“Accordingly, the Son came to the servant; not that the Son might be presented by the servant, but that by the Son the servant might present to His Lord Priesthood and Prophecy, to be laid up with Him. For prophecy and priesthood, which were given through Moses, were handed down, both of them, and teached to Simeon . . . Thus, then, Simeon presented our Lord, and in Him offered both these things; so that that which was given to Moses in the wilderness, was received from Simeon in the Temple . . . Priesthood continued on the hands of Simeon, because of his purifications; and prophecy dwelt in operation upon his lips, because of revelations. When then these two powers saw Him who was Lord of both, they two united togethr and poured themselves into the vessel that was capable of both; that could contain priesthood and kingdom and prophecy. That Infant then, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes, because of His graciousness, clothed Himself in priesthood and prophecy because of His Majesty. For Simeon clothed Him in these, and gave Him to her who had wrapped Him in swaddling clothes . . He was outwardly wrapped in swaddling clothes, but secretly He was clothed with prophecy and priesthood. Whatsoever then was handed down from Moses, was received from Simeon, but continued and was possessed by the Lord of both. So then the steward first, and the treasurer lastly, handed over the keys of priesthood and prophecy to Him who has authority over the treasurer of them both. Therefore, His Father gave Him the spirit not by measure, because all measures of the spirit are under his hand. And that our Lord might show that He received the keys from the former stewards, He said to Simeon [Peter]: To thee I will give the keys of the doors. But how should He have given them to another, had He not received them from another? So, then, the keys which He had received from Simeon the priest, them He gave to another Simeon the Apostle; that even though the People had not hearkened to the former Simeon, the Gentiles might hearken to the latter Simeon.” (Hymns for the Feast of the Epiphany, Three Homilies on Our Lord 1:51-52).[viii]
Ephraim also wrote that “because John [the Baptist] also was the treasurer of baptism, the Lord of the stewardship came to him to receive from him the keys of the house of reconciliation . . . Accordingly, even us our Lord when He was baptized, was clothed in baptism and carried baptism with Him, so also when He was presented in the Temple, He put on prophecy and priesthood, and went forth bearing the purity of the priesthood upon His pure members, and bearing the words of prophecy in His wondrous ears. For when Simeon was sanctifying the body of the Child who sanctifies all, that body received the priesthood its sanctification. And again, when Simeon was prophesying over Him, prophecy quickly entered the hearing of the Child . . . Accordingly, each one of the gifts that was stored up for the Son, He gathered from their true tree. For He received baptism from the Jordan . . . He received priesthood from the Temple . . . He received prophecy which had been handed down amongst the righteous . . . and He received the kingdom from the house of David” (Homily on Our Lord 53-54).[ix]
John the Baptist[x]
When John the Baptist came to ordain Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to the Aaronic Priesthood on 15 May 1829, he indicated that this priesthood “holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins” (D&C 13:1; Joseph Smith History 1:69). Though keys are never associated with John in the biblical account, 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.”[xi]
Joseph Smith declared that “John was a priest after his father, and held the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood, and was called of God to preach the Gospel of the kingdom of God . . . John was a priest after the order of Aaron, and had the keys of that priesthood, and came forth preaching repentance and baptism for the remission of sins” (History of the Church 5:257-8). On 23 July 1843, the prophet said that “John held the Aaronic Priesthood, and was a legal administrator, and the forerunner of Christ, and came to prepare the way before him . . . The Levitical Priesthood is forever hereditary-fixed on the head of Aaron and his sons forever, and was in active operation down to Zacharias the father of John. Zacharias would have had no child had not God given him a son. He sent his angel to declare unto Zacharias that his wife Elizabeth should bear him a son, whose name was to be called John. The keys of the Aaronic Priesthood were committed unto him.”[xii]
An early text preserved by the Mandaeans, who claim to be descendants of the disciples of John the Baptist (whom they call by his Arabic name Yahya), sheds further light on this subject. Called Haran Gawaitha, the text says of John that “when he was seven years old, [the angel] Anush cUthra 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 (nasirutha).”[xiii] According to another Mandaean text, John was taken away as a child by uthras (angels) to be raised to the age of 22. There, “They clothed me with vestures of glory and veiled me with cloud-veils. They wound round me a girdle, of [living] water a girdle, which shone beyond measure and glistened. They set me within a cloud, a cloud of splendour, and in the seventh hour of a Sunday they brought me to the Jerusalem region.”[xiv] The investiture in priestly clothing resembles the account in Testament of Levi 8:2-10, in which the Baptist’s ancestor tells of being visited by seven angels who washed, anointed, and dressed him in priestly robes, ordaining him to be a priest.[xv]
The idea that at a young age John the Baptist was visited by one or more angels who ordained and trained him in the priesthood 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.” An extract from the Life of John, written by Serapion, indicates that John the Baptist was orphaned at an early age by the death of his parents Zacharias and Elizabeth. Distraught at learning of the death of her cousin Elizabeth, Jesus’ mother Mary wanted to bring John to live with her family in Egypt. But the boy Jesus told her, “This is not the will of my Father who is in the heavens. He [John] shall remain in the wilderness till the day of his showing unto Israel. Instead of a desert full of wild beasts, he will walk in a desert full of angels and prophets, as if they were multitudes of people. Here is also Gabriel, the head of the angels, whom I have appointed to protect him and to grant to him power from heaven.”[xvi] Qur’an 19:12 has God saying that he had endowed John the Baptist with wisdom while yet a child and gave him the heavenly book.
As noted at the beginning of this chapter, Joseph Smith held John the Baptist to be a “legal administrator” of the Aaronic priesthood, the keys of which he conferred on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (Joseph Smith History 1:69; D&C 27:8). The Lord told Joseph Smith that only the firstborn line of Aaron “holds the right of the presidency over this priesthood, and the keys or authority of the same” (D&C 68:17) and that this constituted the office of bishop, which only a firstborn descendant of Aaron or a high priest after the order of Melchizedek could hold (D&C 68:14-21; D&C 107:13-17, 68-76).
The Lord further declared 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” (D&C 107:20; see also D&C 84:26-27).
Bearing this in mind, the following statement from the Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8 written by the late first-century Christian bishop Ignatius sounds very much like the way the restored Church views the role of the bishop: “It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize, or to offer, or to present sacrifice, or to celebrate a love-feast.”[xvii] Tertullian (ca. A.D. 160-230) later echoed this in his On Baptism 17.[xviii]
The Syrian bishop Ephraim wrote that “prophecy and priesthood, which were given through Moses, were handed down, both of them, and reached to Simeon” a priest in the Jerusalem temple, and that “Simeon presented our Lord, and in Him offered both these things; so that that which was given to Moses in the wilderness, was received from Simeon in the Temple [Luke 2:25-35] . . . priesthood from His hands and prophecy from His lips,” so that Jesus held “priesthood and kingdom and prophecy.” Thus, “when he gave Him to His mother, he gave along with Him the priesthood; and when he prophesied to her concerning Him . . . He was outwardly wrapped in swaddling clothes, but secretly He was clothed with prophecy and priesthood. Whatsoever then was handed down from Moses, was received from Simeon, but continued and was possessed by the Lord of both. So then the steward first, and the treasurer lastly, handed over the keys of priesthood and prophecy to Him who has authority over the treasurer of them both.” Later, “the keys which He had received from Simeon the priest, them He gave to another Simeon the Apostle,” who came to be called Peter [Matthew 16:15-19]. At his baptism, too, “because John also was the treasurer of baptism, the Lord of the stewardship came to him to receive from him the keys of the house of reconciliation” (Homily on Our Lord 51-53).[xix]
Keys and Dispensations
Joseph Smith received priesthood keys from various prophets of past dispensations, including Moroni, Elias, John the Baptist, Elijah, Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Adam, Peter, James, and John (D&C 27:5-12; 110:11-16; 128:20-21; Joseph Smith History 1:69, 70, 72). The Lord told the prophet that he was restoring “the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times” (D&C 27:13; see also D&C 128:18, 20).[xx]
Except for Peter, the Bible does not mention keys in connection with these early prophets. But there is confirmation in a medieval Hebrew text that Moses held keys from heaven. Zohar Exodus 53b declares that “When the hour arrived at which Moses the faithful shepherd and prophet was to descend into this world, God brought forth a holy spirit from the depths of a sapphire stone in which it was hidden, and crowned it with crowns, and illumined it with two hundred and forty-eight lights, and stationed it before Him and gave over unto its charge the whole of His own Household, with the one hundred and seventy-three keys.”[xxi] When the angels saw Moses thus adorned, “One voice murmured: ‘Who is he, this stranger, in whose hands are all the keys?'”[xxii]
We noted in chapter 20 (The Ancient of Days) that Joseph Smith taught that Adam was the first to receive priesthood keys for this earth.[xxiii] He also spoke of a latter-day council, saying that “all that have had the keys must stand before him in this grand council . . . The Son of Man stands before him, and there is given him glory and dominion. Adam delivers up his stewardship to Christ, that which was delivered to him as holding the keys of the universe, but retains his standing as head of the human family” (History of the Church 3:386; cf. D&C 78:16).
In view of the fact that Joseph Smith came from a Protestant background, it is significant that he placed so much emphasis on priesthood and priesthood keys, in the same manner as the early Christians. The ancient texts in which this information is found were unavailable to the prophet, leaving one to conclude that he received the information, as he himself declared, by divine revelation.
[i] D&C 28:6-7; 35:17-18; 64:5; 81:1-2; 107:35; 112:14-17, 30-32; 115:18-19; 124:91-92, 123-128; 132:7, 19, 39, 45-46, 59-60; History of the Church 2:417.
[ii] See the discussion in chapter 42, Ministering Angels Belong to This Earth.
[iii] Edward G. Matthews, Jr., The Armenian Commentary on Genesis Attributed to Ephrem the Syrian, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium vol. 573, Scriptores Armeniaci vol. 24. (Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 1998), 98.
[iv] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 6:366. When the quorum of the twelve apostles was re-established in February 1835, the eldest member served as president. Ultimately, it was the one who had been ordained earliest who presided.
[v] See also Mark 9:2-4 and Luke 9:28-30. Peter’s recollection of the event is found in 2 Peter 1:16-18.
[vi] Elijah and Moses appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on 3 April 1833 and restored their priesthood keys (D&C 110). Elijah’s appearance, recorded in D&C 110:13-16, cites the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6 about his return (cf. D&C 2:1; 27:9). The preceding verse of that prophecy (Malachi 4:4) mentions Moses. Elijah was the last prophet who held the keys of the priesthood in the dispensation of Moses (History of the Church 4:211).
[vii] See the discussion in chapters 34 (Salvation of the Dead) and 35 (Baptism for the Dead).
[viii] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 13:328-9.
[ix] Ibid., 13:329.
[xi] 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.
[xii] Joseph Fielding Smith, ed., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1979), 318-9, citing a discourse from a manuscript in the Church Historian’s Office.
[xiii] E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran (photomechanical reprint, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1962), 4.
[xiv] G. R. S. Mead, The Gnostic John the Baptizer: Selections from the Mandaean John-Book (London: John M. Watkins, 1924), 57-8.
[xv] The passage reads: “And I saw seven men in white clothing, who were saying to me, “Arise, put on the vestments of the priesthood, the crown of righteousness, the oracle of understanding, the robe of truth, the breastplate of faith, the miter for the head, and the apron for prophetic power.” Each carried one of these and put them on me and said, “From now on be a priest, you and all your posterity.” The first anointed me with holy oil and gave me a staff. The second washed me with pure water, fed me by hand with bread and holy wine, and put on me a holy and glorious vestment. The third put on me something made of linen, like an ephod. The fourth placed . . . around me a girdle which was like purple. The fifth gave me a branch of rich olive wood. The sixth placed a wreath on my head. The seventh placed the priestly diadem on me and filled my hands with incense, in order that I might serve as priest for the Lord God.” James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983), 1:791.
[xvi] Wilhelm Schneemelcher (translator R. McL. Wilson), New Testament Apocrypha (revision, Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 1:468.
[xvii] Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Fathers (reprint, Peabody, MA: Handrickson, 1994), 1:90. The translator’s note indicates that some scholars believe that the “love-feast” denotes the Lord’s Supper. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is the bishop who authorizes the administration of this sacrament.
[xviii] Ibid., 3:677.
[xix] Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 13:328-9.
[xx] For a discussion of the concept of dispensations, see chapter 1, Apostasy and Restoration.
[xxi] Harry Sperling et al., The Zohar (New York: Rebecca Bennet Publications, 1958), 3:164.
[xxii] Ibid., 3:165.
[xxiii] History of the Church 3:385-7; 4:207, 210.