A Changing Priesthood
This blog is part of my ZionBound series. The full series can be read in post order here.
The previous examples of God making changes are all extremely helpful to demonstrate that God does, from time to time, alter things. However, I think perhaps the best case for such a theory relates to the Aaronic priesthood. It is here that we can perhaps best see dramatic changes made by God to what he had already established.
In ancient scripture, God decided to bless the Twelve Tribes of Israel with a priesthood. He selected a member of the Tribe of Levi to be the first high priest, and that man was Aaron, the brother of Moses. Aaron’s sons became the first priests. The rest of the Levites, who were not descended from Aaron, were also given religious duties, but the priesthood itself was restricted to Aaron and his descendants only. Therefore, while other Levites had religious responsibilities only Aaronites were part of the priesthood.
It is important to keep in mind here that to be a Levite, you had to be descended from Levi, and to be part of the priesthood, you had to also be a descendant of Aaron.
The entire Aaronic priesthood would eventually become dormant. However, we know from our history that John the Baptist restored the Aaronic priesthood to the world when he conferred it upon Oliver Cowdery & Joseph Smith Jr. It is important to highlight that our heritage teaches us that this was not a new priesthood named in honor of a prior priesthood. Though dormant, the priesthood is without end, and what was granted to Oliver & Joseph by the Lord through John was a restoration of what already existed previously.
But what of those ancestry requirements? Clearly, in the Restored church, they have been abolished. Any member of the church in good standing, who is called of God, can be, according to the laws of the church, ordained to any office of the Aaronic priesthood, regardless of heritage. One does not need to be Jewish.
Another interesting alteration pertains to the progression of the Levitical “priesthood”.
While people may speak of the “Levitical priesthood”, as a term of convenience for those Levites in the Bible who were not Aaronites, they did not form a priesthood in the same sense as the Aaronic priesthood. The latter was viewed as “the priesthood”. Levites who were not Aaronites were not part of the priesthood, despite having their own religious roles to play.
Yet, Section 104:1a teaches us that in the restored church, the Aaronic priesthood includes the so-called Levitical priesthood:
“There are, in the church, two priesthoods; namely: the Melchisedec, and the Aaronic, including the Levitical priesthood.”
Even if we wanted to argue that the non-Aaronite Levites did constitute an actual priesthood, the fact remains; it would have been distinct from, and not part of the Aaronic priesthood. You had to be an Aaronite to be part of the Aaronic priesthood.
However, based on Section 104, we see that the Levitical “priesthood” is to be regarded as an actual true priesthood, and is now to be viewed as being part of the priesthood of Aaron, despite the prior Aaronite restriction.
We should also look at the composition of the Aaronic priesthood. In ancient scripture it consisted of priests and a high priest (to avoid confusion with the Melchisedec high priest, I’ll term this role as “chief priest”).
The chief priest was not simply an elevated role, but what we would consider an office of priesthood, because he was consecrated to his position, with scripturally defined duties.
It is important to note that in the New Testament and in the Book of Mormon, no such office exists. There are high priests mentioned in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, but they are “after the Order of the Son of God” i.e., they are of the Melchisedec priesthood.
Now, we could argue that bishops, first introduced in the New Testament church, are simply chief priests of the Aaronic priesthood with a new designation. Yet, in the entire nation of ancient Israel, all through it’s history, including when it was a kingdom, there was only one chief priest at a time. However, in the early years of the church, which had a vastly smaller population, there were multiple bishops. So, either bishops are a new office, with chief priests being discarded, or they are the same office, re-named, but reflective of a further change (many vs. one).
Then we have to deal with deacons and teachers. No such offices exist in the Old Testament. Teachers are found in the Aaronic priesthood as it existed amongst the Nephites, but deacons are still absent.
We might suggest that deacons and teachers represent the non-Aaronite Levites. However, the non-Aaronite Levities were classified into three groups: the Gershonites, the Kohathites and the Merarites. So, if we go with that theory, then we are forced to acknowledge that something is missing today.
However, the real meat of this topic pertains to the duties and responsibilities of the Levites and the priesthood.
Each of the three types of non-Aaronite Levites had specific religious duties to perform, as indicated in the following passages from Numbers chapter 3, Inspired Version:
25 And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the tabernacle of the congregation shall be the tabernacle, and the tent, the covering thereof, and the hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation,
26 And the hangings of the court, and the curtain for the door of the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about, and the cords of it, for all the service thereof.
30 And the chief of the house of the father of the families of the Kohathites shall be Elizaphan the son of Uzziel.
31 And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary wherewith they minister, and the hanging, and all the service thereof.
36 And under the custody and charge of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and the sockets thereof, and all the vessels thereof, and all that serveth thereto,
37 And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords.
The duties of the Aaronite priests were to perform various sacrifices and burnt offerings, each for a specific purpose. The chief priest presided over the day of atonement, and had various other unique duties to perform.
However, when we read Section 17 of the Doctrine & Covenants (or any other section), we utterly fail to see any harmony of duties between the modern Aaronic priesthood, and those of the ancient Aaronites and Levites (though there are a few commonalities between the modern priesthood and the Aaronic priesthood amongst the Nephites).
Quite simply, none of the duties of the Gershonites, the Kohathites the Merarites, the priests or the chief priests of the Bible exist in the current Aaronic priesthood, and none of the responsibilities of the latter were held by the former. In fact, the primary duty of the Biblical priests of Aaron was specifically abolished by Christ:
“And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings; and ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit.”
–Third Nephi 4:49
Its worth pointing out that not only were the duties of the priests of Aaron changed, the Lord actually stated that he would no longer accept what he previously commanded His people to provide: sacrifices and burnt offerings, the entire tradition having been “done away” with. Again, this demonstrates God changing something that He had previously implemented.
What we see from all of this is that God does indeed alter things to suit his purposes, as circumstances warrant. God may not change, but the world does, and therefore, the needs of the people, and of the church, change, and thus, God changes the priesthood and the church to better support the needs that they have.
Indeed, a comparison of the Israelite and Nephite Aaronic priesthoods sets a precedent for differences to exist at the same time.
The priesthood of Israel had priests and chief priests, and were assisted by the Levites. The priesthood of the Nephites had priests and teachers and lacked Levites. Not just Levitical temple workers, but members of the Tribe of Levi. Of which the Aaronic priesthood had to be part of. This means that in fact, there were two different divine policies operating on the Earth at the same time. In the Old World, you had to be an Aaronite to be part of the Aaronic priesthood. In the New World, you did not. Two different rules, at the same time, depending where you were.
Here is another example of this:
“And Alma established a church in the land of Sidom, and consecrated priests and teachers in the land, to baptize unto the Lord whosoever were desirous to be baptized.”
During this point in time, the Aaronic priesthood in Israel still existed. Yet, we can be sure that the duties of the Aaronic priesthood in the Old World did not include performing baptisims for the sake of the church of Christ.
We need to remember that from Aaron to Christ, the Aaronic priesthood existed in Israel, with the duties and rules outlined in the Old Testament. Yet, the Aaronic priesthood in the days of Alma, in the New World, existed at the same time as the Aaronic priesthood in the Old World, and the above verse is a clear indication of the two versions of the priesthood having different rules in operation at the same time, by design of God.
The priesthood of Israel operated directly under God. The priesthood of the Nephites operated under the direction of the Melchisedec priesthood.
This last fact is itself a change for another reason. There were no Melchisedec high priests or elders presiding over the Aaronic priesthood of Israel (in Israel). However, the Nephites (who were also Israelites) had such high priests, and they also had elders, and the priests and teachers were subordinate to them.
In other words, the Israelites living in Israel, between Moses and Christ, did not have the Melchisedec priesthood – but the Israelites who were also Nephites living in the New World did! Again, this proves that God may change things not only over time, but in different areas – having different rules for the same thing, as circumstances warrant.
Clearly God does, and has changed things over the ages. This should not really surprise us. It is important to remember that Christ established His church for the sake of mankind. Therefore, we should not be surprised to see God being willing to modify the church to better meet the needs of mankind.
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Questions to Ponder
1. What other examples of changes being made by God can you think of?
2. Do you agree that major changes should only be made by God?
3. Understanding that God does indeed change things from time to time, what concerns might you have about this, and what excites you?