Does D&C 84:19–22 indicate that a person has to have the Melchizedek Priesthood in order to see God? Joseph Smith didn’t have the priesthood at the time of the First Vision.
Melvin J. Petersen, professor of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University. There are a number of scriptures that show one doesn’t have to have the Melchizedek Priesthood or be a recipient of its ordinances in order to see either the Father or the Son.
In the New Testament, for example, we read that Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul the Apostle, saw the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. At the time of this experience, Saul held no true priesthood; he was, in fact, trying to destroy the Lord’s disciples, whom he considered heretics. It wasn’t until after the heavenly vision that he received any of the ordinances of the priesthood. (See Acts 9:3–18.)
Again, in the Book of Mormon, Lamoni, a Lamanite king, saw the Lord before receiving the priesthood or its ordinances. He was overcome by the Spirit after hearing Ammon’s missionary message, and in the process of his conversion he beheld the Redeemer. (See Alma 18:36–19:13.)
The Savior himself explained on one occasion, “Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father.” (John 6:46.) The apostle John wrote that one who does evil “hath not seen God.” (3 Jn. 1:11.)
At another time, the Lord said:
“He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” (John 14:21.)
Does the same hold true for seeing God the Father? Apparently so. Jesus said that “if a man love me, he will keep my words; and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (John 14:23; see D&C 130:3.)
Such visions are extremely rare, however. “No man hath seen God at any time,” Jesus explained, “except he hath borne record of the Son; for except it is through him no man can be saved.” (JST, John 1:19; italics added.) This enlightening comment explains that when God the Father appears to a person, it is primarily to testify of His Son—which is exactly what happened when the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith held no priesthood, nor had he received any priesthood ordinances at the time of the First Vision. But he loved the Lord and wanted to know how to order his life. In response to his earnest prayer, he saw the Father and the Son, he heard what they said, he spoke and asked questions, and he received answers. (See JS—H 1:15–20.)
“The Power of Godliness”
Although a person need not hold the priesthood to be visited by God, that does not mean priesthood power is absent during the experience. In many cases, those who have seen God report that they were overshadowed by divine power. Moses, for example, records that he was spiritually and physically changed—“transfigured”—during his visit with the Lord: “Mine own eyes have beheld God,” he wrote; “but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him.” (Moses 1:11.)
The process by which a mortal is changed from his natural condition to a transfigured state is further clarified by a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“No man has seen God at any time in the flesh, except quickened by the Spirit of God.
“Neither can any natural man abide the presence of God, neither after the carnal mind.”
(D&C 67:11–12; italics added.)
Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith describe an experience in which “the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about. And we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness.”
(D&C 76:20.) They then went on to see in vision the three degrees of glory.
This same experience, they declared, is available to all those who love God and purify themselves. But it comes only “through the power and manifestation of the Spirit,” that “while in the flesh, they may be able to bear his presence in the world of glory.” (D&C 76:118.)
This is evidently one aspect of the “power of godliness” mentioned in D&C 84:22. And it is priesthood power. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that the Melchizedek Priesthood “is the highest and holiest Priesthood, and is after the order of the Son of God. … It is the channel through which the Almighty commenced revealing His glory at the beginning of the creation of this earth, and through which He has continued to reveal Himself to the children of men to the present time.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 167.)
“A Fulness of Glory”
Apparently, then, the power God uses to quicken men and women spiritually so that they can see him is the priesthood—the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God, usually called the Melchizedek Priesthood. (See D&C 107:1–4.) Some, as Moses did in the quotation above, associate this power with “glory,” or God’s “presence,” or the Holy Spirit. (See D&C 94:8–9; D&C 97:15–16; 1 Ne. 17:41–52.)
This spiritual quickening is usually a temporary state that withdraws when the visit is finished. But sanctified beings who enjoy the promise of eternal life are endowed with a fulness of this power of godliness. If they endure in this state, the Savior promises that they will enjoy a fulness of glory forever as exalted beings and “dwell in the presence of God and his Christ forever.” (See D&C 76:50–70; D&C 88:3–5.)
This, in fact, was the goal Moses sought when he brought the children of Israel to Mount Sinai. Jehovah had wanted to sanctify Israel and make them “a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” through covenant with him. (See Ex. 19:5–6.) Their sanctification would have been accomplished as God has ordained—through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. By exercising faith in Christ unto repentance and covenanting to keep his commandments by being baptized, each of the children of Israel could have been sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost. (See 2 Ne. 31:17–20; 3 Ne. 27:18–21.)
Thus sanctified by the Spirit and endowed with the gift of the Holy Ghost, Israel would have entered a heightened spiritual state in which, through the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood now administered in God’s holy temples, they could have access to the “mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.”
With that key, they would, in effect, have the key to eternal life. Eventually, they might have so risen in spiritual stature, going “from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation,” that they could enter into God’s rest fully and forever to “dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.” (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 298–99, 346–47; see also D&C 93:11–20.) They would truly have come to know God, which the Savior said is eternal life. (See John 17:1–3.)
But they weren’t ready. Although ancient Israel saw the cloud in which Jehovah descended upon Mount Sinai and heard his voice, they were not permitted to see him. If they had tried, they would have perished. (See Ex. 19:9, 16–21.) The Lord explained that they were “exceedingly sinful. And no sinful man hath at any time, neither shall there be any sinful man at any time, that shall see my face and live.” (JST, Ex. 33:20.) Israel “hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence.” They turned instead to the worship of a golden calf. Angered by their actions, the Lord “swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory.” (D&C 84:24.)
Since they could not abide the Lord’s presence, the priesthood and the ordinances that would have set them onto the path of eternal life were withheld. God “took Moses out of their midst, and the Holy Priesthood also; and the lesser priesthood continued.” (See D&C 84:25–26; JST, Ex. 34:1–2.)
“The Knowledge of God”
Commenting upon Doctrine and Covenants 84:19, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith said: “It is impossible for men to obtain the knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom or the knowledge of God, without the authority of the priesthood. Secular learning, the study of the sciences, arts and history, will not reveal these vital truths to man. It is the Holy Priesthood that unlocks the door to heaven and reveals to man the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. It is this Divine Authority which makes known the knowledge of God! Is there any wonder that the world today is groping in gross darkness concerning God and the things of his kingdom? We should also remember that these great truths are not made known even to members of the Church unless they place their lives in harmony with the law on which these blessings are predicated.” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 2 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1953, 1:338.)
Seeing God is a wonderful but a rare thing. He comes to whomever he will, overshadowing them by his power so that they can endure his presence. But obtaining the knowledge of God—which obviously involves more than just seeing him—requires all the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Secular sources or man’s best efforts will not do.
“When we read things of this nature,” said Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, referring to Doctrine and Covenants 84:19–22, “it ought to make every man among us who holds the priesthood rejoice to think that we have that great authority by which we may know God. Not only the men holding the priesthood know that great truth, but because of that priesthood and the ordinances thereof, every member of the church, men and women alike, may know God.” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 3:142–43.)