How do Latter-day Saints support the doctrine of Melchizedek Priesthood authority from the Bible?
Critics sometimes question the LDS doctrine of priesthood authority by citing two passages of scripture, one in Matthew and one in Hebrews. Interestingly, Latter-day Saints use these same references to support the doctrine of the priesthood. Fortunately, however, because of modern-day revelation, Latter-day Saints are not dependent upon the Bible alone for their complete understanding of this and other doctrines. , instructor at University of Washington Institute of Religion.
The first passage of scripture, Matthew 16:13–19, has been used by Catholicism to support its position that a continuous chain of authority extends from the Apostle Peter to the present pontiff: [Matt. 16:13–19]
“When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? …
“And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
“And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
“And 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.”
Joseph Smith explained that the rock upon which the church would be built was revelation. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, p. 274.) Indeed, revelation was the issue at hand. Peter knew that Jesus was the Christ through revelation: “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”
The Bible also supports this interpretation. A textual analysis of this passage clearly demonstrates that, although the keys of the kingdom were given to Simon Peter, the church was not built upon him. It was built, instead, upon Christ, the “rock” of revelation.
The Greek text, for example, makes it clear that the “rock” in verse 18 was not Peter. The Greek word used for Peter is petros, a masculine noun meaning a small rock or stone. The Greek word for rock (“upon this rock”) is petra, a feminine noun meaning bedrock. Thus, the Greek text reads like this: “Thou art Peter [petros, small rock], and upon this rock [petra, bedrock] I will build my church.”
Who is this petra, this large rock-mass? The answer is given explicitly in 1 Corinthians 10:1–4: [1 Cor. 10:1–4]
“All our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea;
“And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea;
“And did all eat the same spiritual meat;
“And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (Italics added.)
The Greek word for Rock in the passage above, as in the verse in Matthew, is petra (bedrock). There is no question that Christ is the “Rock” the Church was to be built upon, rather than Peter. Paul told the Corinthians that “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:11.)
But what is the importance of the relationship between the bedrock and the stone? And what part does revelation play in this relationship?
When Simon Peter was first introduced to Jesus, the Lord changed Simon’s name to “Cephas, which is by interpretation, A stone.” (John 1:42.) In the Joseph Smith Translation, a clarifying word is given: “Cephas, which is, by interpretation, a seer, or a stone.” (Italics added.)
The reason for Simon’s new name does not become clear until the experience at Caesarea Philippi, quoted earlier. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: “In promising him the keys of the kingdom, our Lord [told] Peter that the gates of hell shall never prevail against the rock of revelation, or in other words against seership. (Matt. 16:18.) Seers are specially selected prophets who are authorized to use the Urim and Thummim and who are empowered to know past, present, and future things. ‘A gift ,which is greater can no man have.’ (Mosiah 8:13–18.)” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 1:133.)
The Mount of Transfiguration experience was essential for the new role Peter would play. Just as the mount was a rock of revelation, it was by revelation that Peter knew Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The small rock (Peter) was to become a “seer who would receive revelation from the large rock (Jesus Christ)—the Rock of Revelation. He would be the one to hold the keys of the kingdom and represent the Lord upon the earth. He would feed the sheep. (See John 21:15–17.)
Jesus did not say to Peter that there would always be a seer upon the earth to hold the keys of the kingdom, but that the “gates of hell” would not prevail against “this rock”—petra, or the Rock of Revelation. “In this instance,” wrote Elder McConkie, “Jesus is telling Peter that the gates of hell shall never prevail against the rock of revelation; that is, as long as the saints are living in righteousness so as to receive revelation from heaven, they will avoid the gates of hell and the Church itself will remain pure, undefiled, and secure against every evil. But when, because of iniquity, revelation ceases, then the gates of hell prevail against the people.” (Commentary, 1:389.)
Catholics do not embrace the principle of modern-day revelation; the popes are not considered “seers” who receive revelation from the Rock. Protestants accept the conclusion that the church was not built upon Peter, but they fail to recognize the significance of the role of the petros, the seer who holds the keys of the kingdom. We are indeed blessed as Latter-day Saints to understand the full implications of this important event in the Bible. President Spencer W. Kimball is that needed seer in our day—a prophet, seer, and revelator.
Now let’s move to the second passage of scripture in question. The seventh chapter of Hebrews is used by many Protestants to argue that there is no need for a priesthood function in the church apart from Jesus—that he alone held the Melchizedek Priesthood.
When Luther rebelled against the Catholic priesthood, he developed the idea of a “priesthood of all believers” and taught the notion “that no man needed a priest to mediate between him and God except Christ, who is the perfect priest for all men.” 1 In essence, Luther said there is no priesthood function performed except by Christ. A Christian does not need the priesthood, he said, nor does he need a priesthood bearer other than Christ in order to be saved.
In his epistle to the Hebrews, Paul refers explicitly to the Melchizedek Priesthood, assuming that his readers already understand its function. His purpose in writing the epistle is to prove the superiority of the higher covenant (gospel law) to the lesser covenant (Mosaic law). In chapter seven, he continues to follow this pattern by showing that the Melchizedek Priesthood, which administers the higher law, is superior to the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood, which administers the lesser law.
There are many informative concepts about the priesthood in this chapter, such as the ideas that perfection comes through the Melchizedek Priesthood (Heb. 7:11–12), that the Melchizedek Priesthood is not restricted to one lineage (Heb. 7:13–15), that the priesthood is eternal (Heb. 7:16–17), that it is received with an oath and a covenant (Heb. 7:20–21), and that Christ’s priesthood function continues eternally (Heb. 7:27–28).
This chapter could best be understood as a typology, with Melchizedek, the great high priest, being a “type” of Christ—and the order of the priesthood held by Melchizedek and his people being typical of the order of the priesthood held by Jesus Christ and his disciples.
Verse 24 is perhaps the one most often misunderstood and has caused considerable debate. The confusion is over the Greek word translated as unchangeable: “But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood.” [Heb. 7:24]
The confusion is illustrated by the alternate translation for unchangeable which the King James translators have given in the footnote or margin: “Or, which passeth not from one to another.” (The marginal translation has been omitted in the new LDS edition.) This translation supports Luther’s contention that the administration of the priesthood has occurred only in Christ, that his priesthood did not pass to others, that there is no formal priesthood in the church. A number of commentaries and some lexicons have attempted to defend this marginal translation as being correct, in spite of the fact that there is no attestation (verified evidence of usage) for that translation and no contextual basis for that interpretation.
Unchangeable is translated from the Greek word aparabaton. The usage of that word in ancient Greek has been examined for years—and no scholar that I know of has found any reliable example of the word being used to mean “cannot pass from one to another.” However, the translation “unchangeable” or “immutable” has numerous attestations. Thus, according to known Greek usage, the best translation would be “unchangeable.”
For example, this is the conclusion in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: “We should keep to the rendering ‘unchangeable’ the more so as the active sense (‘non-transferable’) is not attested elsewhere.” 2 Moulton’s and Milligan’s The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, a compilation of attested Greek usage, says: “It is clear that the technical use, compared with late literary, constitutes a very strong case against the rendering ‘not transferable.’” 3
The context itself of the chapter in Hebrews welcomes the translation “unchangeable,” but cannot tolerate the idea of “non-transferable.” The author begins chapter seven by stressing the eternal nature of the priesthood. Melchizedek “abideth a priest continually” (Heb. 7:3); he still “liveth” (Heb. 7:8); another priest is made “after the power of an endless life” (Heb. 7:16); “Thou art a priest for ever” (Heb. 7:17, 21); “But this man, because he continueth ever, hath an unchangeable priesthood” (Heb. 7:24; italics added).
There is nothing in the context to suggest that the priesthood is “non-transferable.” It is eternal—it will never depart from a priesthood holder except through transgression. In one sense, one never passes his priesthood to another; it is his, “unchangeable” or eternal. But this doesn’t mean that he can’t bestow the priesthood on another man when authorized to do so.
The priesthood is organized into an “order.” Christ was a priest “after the order of Melchisedec.” (Heb. 7:21.) The fact that Melchizedek had an “order of the priesthood” indicates that more than Jesus held the priesthood. If Christ had been the only one to hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, there would have been no “order.” The scriptures themselves attest that such an order did exist in New Testament times. Not only were the Apostles ordained to their position by the Savior (see John 15:16), but others were also given the priesthood. (See Acts 13:3; Titus 1:5.)
Supportive of these conclusions is evidence from the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who died A.D. 135, stated that “the priesthood is the very highest point of all good things among men, against which whosoever is mad enough to strive, dishonors not man, but God, and Christ Jesus, the First-born, and the only High Priest, by nature, of the father.” 4
Here Ignatius suggests that Christ is indeed the only high priest of the Father. He says nothing, however, about those who have received the Melchizedek Priesthood—“the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God” (D&C 107:3)—and are ordained as high priests of the Son. He also distinguishes between Christ’s right to the priesthood by nature, and man’s receipt of the priesthood by ordination. It is Christ’s priesthood by nature, but for others it is the “highest point of all good things” that they can attain.
Theophilus, a later Bishop of Antioch, circa A.D. 168, said in reference to the man Melchizedek: “At that time there was a righteous king called Melchisedek, in the city of Salem, which now is Jerusalem. This was the first priest of all priests of the Most High God. … And from his time priests were found in all the earth.” 5 Certainly in the mind of Theophilus there was an “order” of Melchizedek.
The knowledge of an order of the Melchizedek Priesthood has faded from the biblical text. But modern revelation has restored many plain and precious truths about the priesthood that are vital to our salvation and eternal life. The priesthood is essential. It is the power of God that leads us to perfection.
This article does not cover all of the biblical passages that might allude to the priesthood—it focuses instead on passages that have been misunderstood by many Bible students. For a much more complete understanding of the priesthood held by Melchizedek, note JST Genesis 14:25–40, in the appendix of the LDS edition of the Bible. [JST, Gen. 14:25–40] For additional references on the priesthood, see the various headings in the Topical Guide under the listing “Priesthood.”
See William Hordern, A Layman’s Guide to Protestant Theology, New York: Macmillan Co., 1955, pp. 29–30.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967, p. 743.
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982, p. 53.
See Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979, 1:90; italics added.
See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 2:107.