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- D&C 121:36. This verse employs three distinct terms, the relationships among which need to be sorted out carefully: "the rights of the priesthood," "the powers of heaven," and "the principles of righteousness." The two of these terms ("rights" and "powers") are described as being "inseparably connected," while the second and third of these terms ("powers" and "principles" have a more complex relationship, the one ("principles") being a necessary condition for the other ("powers") to be "controlled" or "handled." What is at work in this complex of terms and relationships?
- As for the term "rights of the priesthood," it should be noted that the language of "rights" only began to be associated with the priesthood, at least in revelation, in 1835—both in a revelation received that year (D&C 107) and in revisions of a revelation that had been received earlier (D&C 68). It would not be inappropriate to draw a connection between this development and the reception (in December of 1832) of the revelation that is now D&C 86, particularly verses 8-11, where the Saints were, for the first time, informed that they—or at least some of them—were direct descendants of those who had held authority anciently, making them "legal heirs" (cf. D&C 107:40). Of course, the language of "the rights of the priesthood" seldom refers to the right to the priesthood, but much more often refers to the rights of the priesthood, the rights conferred on one through the priesthood. Exemplary are the many references in section 107. Whereas earlier revelations (particularly D&C 20) had made reference first and foremost to the duties of the several offices of the priesthood, this revelation outlined the rights of those same offices (see especially verses 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12). In the end, it seems best to understand the "rights of the priesthood" here in section 121 in this latter manner: in question are the rights the priesthood itself bestows. And, if section 107 is the point of reference for making sense of what is meant by the priesthood's "rights," it seems that what is meant is the right specifically to officiate and to preside.
- What, then, of the "powers of heaven"? The phrase is relatively rare in scripture. It's only biblical appearance is in Luke 21:26, though it appears also in Joseph Smith's revision of Matthew 24. In these two texts, the "powers of heaven" are shaken during the eschatological events surrounding the second coming of Christ, and in both cases the shaking of the powers in question is closely associated with the darkening of the sun and the moon, as well as the falling of the stars. The phrase appears three times in the Book of Mormon, all three of these in Third Nephi and on the lips of the Savior: 3 Ne 20:22; 21:25; and 28:7. (Note that the second of these references reads "power of heaven" rather than "powers of heaven" in the current edition. Royal Skousen's Earliest Text, however, provides the reading of "powers of heaven" for this text, bringing it into conformity with the other two references.) In Third Nephi, the phrase always appears in the context of the announcement of Christ's coming to Israel, accompanied by "the powers of heaven." In at least one of these references, it almost seems that "the powers of heaven" refers to actual persons (or angels?) who will accompany Christ to earth. This may be confirmed in Moses 7:27, where the phrase seems again to be a title for angels. At any rate, it seems best to understand the phrase as referring to "supernatural"—and even personal—assistance (or assistants). (Another reference, of no particular help, can be found in D&C 84:119.)
- Finally, what is meant by "the principles of righteousness"? Interestingly, this passage marks the only appearance of this phrase in scripture. However, it is perhaps relatively easy to interpret, given that section 121 itself goes on to clarify it—something it does not do with the other terms here under consideration. The key comes only in verses 41-42. Before that, the reader is prepared for the clarification of the term by the references in verses 37 and 39 to "unrighteousness" and "unrighteous dominion." The term itself ("principles of righteousness") is not clarified in these preparatory verses; only the effects of abandoning the principles of righteousness is clarified. But verses 41-42 provide something of a list of principles of righteousness. That it is indeed the principles of righteousness that one finds in that passage is clear from the way that the beginning of verse 41 frames the list: "No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood...." What is intended here, it seems clear, is again, as in verse 36, to draw a distinction between power and priesthood, to distinguish "the powers of heaven" from "the rights of the priesthood." Drawing on (abbreviated forms of) two of the terms from verse 36, it seems clear that the list that follows in verses 41-42 lay out the "principles of righteous" through which power and influence can and apparently ought to be maintained. They are, in the simple form of a list: persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, and pure knowledge (this last is expounded on a bit in verse 42). The meaning of the third term from verse 36 is thus quite straightforward.
- With the terms clarified, what is verse 36 actually saying about the relationships among these three terms? First, quite clearly, it is a question of distinguishing the first two terms. It would seem, then, that those who, according to verse 35, "do not learn this one lesson" make the mistake of conflating "the rights of the priesthood" with "the powers of heaven," of taking the right to officiate or to preside as being equivalent to having access to supernatural assistance (or assistants). It apparently must be made clear, here, that there is a radical break between the right to lead and the ability to wield power: governance and power must be completely uncoupled. The second point being made here, it seems, is that power can in fact be wielded, but that it can only be wielded through the principles of righteousness—regardless, apparently, of whether one holds the rights of the priesthood or not.
- But if all this, with so much terminological clarification, seems straightforward enough, it is perhaps complicated to some degree by the introduction, in verse 37, of the term "authority."
- D&C 121:38: Kick against the pricks. Spencer W. Kimball, in the April 1955 Conference Report, explains this phrase thus: "A goad is defined as a spear or a sharp pointed stick used to sting or prig. The burro who kicks the sharp instrument with which he is being prodded is kicking at the pricks. His retaliation does little damage to the sharp stick or to him who wields it but brings distress to the foot that kicks it."
- D&C 121:41: No power or influence. One might interpret the beginning of verse 41 as telling us that the priesthood should not be used to maintain power or influence of any kind. In that case the list starting "only by persuasion" would be a list of ways that power or influence ought to be maintained—in lieu of doing so by virtue of the priesthood. Alternately, one could interpret the only here as meaning something like except. In that case the list which begins "only by persuasion" is a list of legitimate ways that the priesthood can maintain power and influence. The difference between these two interpretations is significant in how we look at the role of the priesthood. Should neither power nor influence ever be maintained by virtue of the priesthood? (The first interpretation.) Or, is it part of the legitimate role of the priesthood to maintain power and influence but it must do so only in the prescribed ways listed? (The second interpretation.)
- Under either interpretation the most significant point of these verses remains the same—someone who holds the priesthood must seek to influence others through love, persuasion, kindness etc. Reproving others should be done early and only when moved on by the Holy Ghost.
- D&C 121:41: Only by... This phrase, continuing in the subsequent verses, marks the beginning of a list of how one can (and ought?) to maintain "power or influence." It is important to note that this passage is connected 2 Cor 6:1-13, not only in spirit but on the linguistic level.
- D&C 121:43: Betimes. Although this word is often taken to mean something like "from time to time," it actually means "early" or "in good season or time" (see Webster's 1828 definition here). This word is used in several other passages in the KJV listed here.
- D&C 121:45: Confidence. The 1847 New Dictionary of the English Language defines confidences as "To have or place faith or trust in; to credit or give credit; to trust or believe, to be secure or assured, to rely or depend upon; to be firmly, boldly secure" (by Charles Richardson, 1847). This is in-line with the three definitions given in Oxford English Dictionary (OED):
- The mental attitude of trusting in or relying on a person or thing; firm trust, reliance, faith. Const. in (to, on, upon).
- The feeling sure or certain of a fact or issue; assurance, certitude; assured expectation.
- Assurance, boldness, fearlessness, arising from reliance (on oneself, on circumstances, on divine support, etc.)
- D&C 121:45: Virtue. The Webster's 1828 Dictionary provides ten different definitions of virtue, including strength, bravery, moral goodness, acting power, excellence. In the New Testament, virtue is most often the English translation of the Greek Arete, which conveys a sense of excellence or goodness associated with reaching your utmost potential. This usage is found in Philip 4:8, 1 Pet 2:9 where it is translated as "praises", and 2 Pet 1:3-2 Pet 1:5. Virtue is twice used as the English translation of the Greek Dunamis, which refers to strength, power, and ability (Mark 5:30, Luke 6:19). If Joseph Smith or the Lord is referring to either of these senses of the word "virtue," then its use here has more to do with power, strength, and reaching noble potential, rather than merely chaste or pure sentiments. This reading may be further supported by the very similar usage of virtue (arete) in Philip 4:8--where we are commanded to "think on" virtue (arete).
- D&C 121:45: Bowels full of charity. If we are "full of charity" then there can be no place in us for ill-feelings. Only the best of feelings should exist between us. This is how we need to feel in order to pray and be confident in the presence of God.
- Doctrine distil...as the dews. This reference echoes Deut 32:2, where Moses states that his "doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew." This metaphor is not entirely clear. It may imply that the Spirit will teach us slowly and almost imperceptibly, perhaps without our fully realizing or noticing it. This may be a parallel to what happens in the next verse—with knowledge perhaps drawn to us "without compulsory means" to "flow unto" us forever and ever, as our dominion is described in verse 46.
- Thy confidence wax strong. In verse 45 we are told that if we are full of charity toward all men and "let virtue garnish [our] thoughts unceasingly" then our confidence will "wax strong in the presence of God." One way we can understand confidence here is to mean "assurance, boldness, fearlessness" as suggested in the 3rd definition given by the OED (see the lexical notes above). This interpretation can explain Jared's boldness in Ether 3:10. Though the Brother of Jared was struck with fear when he first sees the Lord (when he sees just His finger Ether 3:6), in verse 10 the Brother of Jared shows confidence (when he says "Lord, show thyself unto me"). Reading confidence here as "assurance, boldness, fearlessness," suggests interpreting the Brother of Jared's boldness here as the result of his righteousness—that he was charitable and virtuous.
- We can also understand this confidence in the presence of the Lord by understanding what happens in the reverse case. Just as the scriptures tell us that those who have virtuous thoughts will have confidence in the Lord's presence, so they also tells us that those without virtuous thoughts will not have confidence in the presence of God. For example, Alma 12:14 specifically makes the connection between thoughts that condemn us and wanting to hide from the presence of the Lord.
- D&C 121:46: Scepter. The phrase "scepter of righteousness" only occurs once in the New Testament at Heb 1:8, where it refers to the scepter of God's kingdom. Scepter there is an English translation of the Greek rhabdos, which is elsewhere translated as a rod or staff--including the Lord's "rod of iron" mentioned in Rev 2:27, Rev 12:5, and Rev 19:15.
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Prompts for life application
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Prompts for further study
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- D&C 121:35: How do we guard ourselves from setting our hearts upon the things of the world?
- D&C 121:35: How do we guard ourselves from aspiring to the honors of men both in the church, and out of the church?
- D&C 121:44: What does it mean to have faithfulness "stronger than the cords of death"? Why is it important for others to see that faithfulness?
- D&C 121:45: What is the "doctrine of the priesthood?"
- D&C 121:45: Does this doctrine differ from the doctrine of the gospel? Is it a subset? A superset?
- D&C 121:45: What definition of "virtue" might be most applicable in this verse? Is there more involved here then just having pure thoughts?
- D&C 121:46: What is the scepter mentioned here?
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- D&C 121:45. Elder Bruce R. McConkie specifically addresses the question "What is the doctrine of the priesthood?" in his April 1982 General Conference address titled Doctrine of the Priesthood.
- D&C 121:45. What it means to have confidence in the presence of God is addressed by Brother Wirthlin in the 4th to last paragraph of his 1990 general conference address on integrity and by President Hinckley in his 1996 general conference address titled "Be Ye Clean".
- D&C 121:45. John D. Nielson compares verses 45-46 to the Taoist notion of Creative Quietude at the Small and Simple blog.
- D&C 121:45. Elaine S. Dalton, "Look toward Eternity!," Ensign, Nov 2006, pp. 31–32. Speaking of the importance of purity upon confidence, Sister Dalton said "we can confidently enter the holy temples of God with a knowledge that we are worthy to go where the Lord Himself goes. When we are worthy, we can not only enter the temple, the temple can enter us."
- D&C 121:45. Craig A. Cardon, "Moving Closer to Him," Ensign, Nov 2006, pp. 94–96. Elder Cardon states: "It is significant that after inviting us to have charity toward 'all men,' the Lord added the phrase 'and to the household of faith...' Consider the implications when this added phrase is understood to mean more specifically 'your very own household of faith.' Unfortunately, there are a few within the Church who exhibit greater charity toward non-family members than toward their own spouses and children, siblings and parents. They may show feigned kindness publicly while privately sowing and cultivating seeds of contention, demeaning those who should be closest to them. These things should not be."
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