The scripture found in D&C 13:1 says,
1 Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.
What is this scripture talking about?
This is a great question because, in this single sentence, there are multiple, fascinating items of great doctrinal significance. The restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood took place on 15 May 1829. Oliver Cowdery related that, immediately before this time, Joseph and he completed the translation and transcription of the Savior’s appearance to the Nephites. If you will recall, there was a moment in that narrative when the Lord of Glory called Nephi forward and gave him authority to baptize believers into the Church. Cowdery related how this prompted them to consider their own standing before God, once it occurred to them that the authority to baptize might not be upon the earth. Oliver wrote:
“After writing the account given of the Savior’s ministry to the remnant of the seed of Jacob, upon this continent, it was easy to be seen, as the prophet said it would be, that darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the minds of the people. On reflecting further it was as easy to be seen that amid the great strife and noise concerning religion, none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the Gospel. For the question might be asked, have men authority to administer in the name of Christ, who deny revelations, when His testimony is no less than the spirit of prophecy, and His religion based, built, and sustained by immediate revelations, in all ages of the world when He has had a people on earth? If these facts were buried, and carefully concealed by men whose craft would have been in danger if once permitted to shine in the faces of men, they were no longer to us; and we only waited for the commandment to be given ‘Arise and be baptized’ (Joseph Smith—History).
Oliver gives a vivid description of the encounter with John the Baptist.
This was not long desired before it was realized. The Lord, who is rich in mercy, and ever willing to answer the consistent prayer of the humble, after we had called upon Him in a fervent manner, aside from the abodes of men, condescended to manifest to us His will. On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the Gospel of repentance. What joy! what wonder! what amazement! (Joseph Smith-History).
When we learn about the restoration of the priesthood, our Sunday School and seminary teachers don’t usually mention the fact that the Lord spoke to Joseph and Oliver at this moment, but Oliver related that the “voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us.” The heading for Section 13 also tells us that John claimed that he was acting under the direction of Peter, James, and John. To me, these details outline the way the order of the priesthood operates. The apostleship operates under keys given by the Savior and directs the work of salvation. The Melchizedek Priesthood holds the rights of presidency and directs the Aaronic Priesthood as an appendage to its mission. Joseph and Oliver’s experience is a lesson in the administration of heaven in this regard.
Oliver mentions that John the Baptist restored the “keys of the gospel of repentance.” After they were ordained by the heavenly messenger, Joseph and Oliver were sent to baptize one another for the remission of sins. It is interesting to note that they were not ordained to an office in the Aaronic Priesthood; the priesthood only was conferred upon them. This is because the offices of the Aaronic Priesthood are office of the Church, which would not be restored until April of the following year. There was no Church yet in which they could hold a priesthood office.
Along with the keys of the gospel of the remission of sins was included a special spiritual gift: the ministering of angels. Many saints have wondered why this marvelous gift is given to the Aaronic Priesthood expressly, but is not mentioned as part of the Melchizedek Priesthood. This is necessary for the protection of gospel ministers who act without the benefit of the greater priesthood’s authority. D&C 107:18-20 teaches us:
18 The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church–
19 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.
20 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.
Aaronic Priesthood holders may rely upon angelic ministrants to protect them as they preach the gospel. In the 19th century, it was common for priests to travel on missions, usually (but not always) in the company of Elders. Doctrine and Covenants Section 128, verse 20 relates that Michael, the archangel, appeared as a ministering angel on the banks of the Susquehanna River and detected Satan, who apparently appeared as an angel of light and tried to deceive Joseph and Oliver. We have no other official record of this event, but it mentions in the sequence of various visions and appearances, the appearance of Peter, James, and John immediately after this reference. If the reader desires more information on the circumstances of the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood, the following Ensign article contains some additional, fascinating information:
Finally, the words of John the Baptist leave us with an enticing question. What does he mean when he says the priesthood will not be taken from the earth until the sons of Levi offer an offering in righteousness? We immediately think of Aaronic Priesthood offerings in John’s time, which would have involved animal sacrifices. We wonder, will the Aaronic Priesthood eventually be taken from the earth? If animal sacrifice ended with the shedding of the Savior’s blood which it symbolized, what will the offering be?
In the Bible, the sons of Levi included Moses and his brother, Aaron. D&C 84:31 and 34 tell us that the modern sons of Levi are those who hold the Melchizedek and Aaronic Priesthoods. What is the offering they will offer? Joseph Smith answers this question in D&C 128:24,
… [A]nd he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation.
The vast genealogical work of the Church, under the direction of the Priesthood, is the book containing the records of our dead, to be presented to the Lord as an offering when He returns. If this work was not underway when He returns, the earth would be smitten with a curse (See Malachi 4:6). This work will continue throughout the Millennium, thus the work of the Aaronic Priesthood will continue right up until the end of the thousand years, when its mission will be fulfilled as a preparatory priesthood and a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (D&C 84:26,Galatians 3:24).
In a single short verse of scripture, a marvelous outpouring of light from an angelic messenger connects us to many other brilliant facets of gospel truth from the restoration.