It states in the scriptures that you can only see the Father with the High Priesthood. How was Joseph Smith able to see the Father without it?
Actually, the scriptures don’t say that. Anti-Mormon sources say that. Here’s the scripture you are referring to:
For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live. D&C 84:22 (emphasis added)
Now, the first word to discuss is “this”. What does “this” refer to? The preceding verses state:
20 Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.
21 And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;
So, first, we need to understand that the thing that is required is the power of godliness, not necessarily the Melchizedek Priesthood. In many cases they go hand-in-hand. But not always so. Second, we need to understand that this passage has multiple meanings. Keeping them straight requires understanding the meanings in the context of the entire scriptures.
Many instances in scriptures tell us that the power of godliness is manifest without the mortals in question having been ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood in the common sense. Earlier in the Doctrine and Covenants, we find out how.
For no man has seen God at any time in the flesh, except quickened by the Spirit of God. D&C 67:11
I believe you’re confusion arises because this same exception was not repeated in Section 84. Such Pharisaism is not what the Lord tailors His words to. We are expected to search the scriptures diligently and live by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God (D&C 84:44) and then ask God if it be right (D&C 9:8).
To explore this quickening, let’s consider Moses’ experience when he was caught up into an exceedingly high mountain. After the Divine interchange concluded, we read:
And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth. Moses 1:9
Then consider Joseph’s own experience in the Sacred Grove:
“when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back and it was some time before my strength returned.” 1843 interview with David N White
The quickening spoken of in D&C 67 is what is commonly referred to as transfiguration. Such Divine modification causes a temporary change in our bodies so that we are not “in the flesh” throughout the encounter. It is the power of godliness granted unto mortals to be able to bear the presence of God. Even with that, our mortal bodies are apparently not used to such demands, and we are left enervated. In Moses’ time as well as Joseph’s, God quickened the mortal whom He chose.
In Moses’ time as well as Joseph’s, no authorized apostle or prophet held all the keys to preside over God’s kingdom on earth. And in Moses’ time as well as Joseph’s, God chose a mortal without authority to become the first to be granted authority in each dispensation to act as His earthly representative.
So, now I ask, what is the priesthood? It is the authority to speak and act in the name of God. To be his earthly representative. When the Lord calls His chosen prophet, He is by the very act, granting him authority to act in His name. Being called as a prophet qualifies. And Joseph was ordained to that calling prior to “seeing the Lord”.
…he heard the Prophet Joseph relate his vision of seeing The Father and the Son, That God touched his eyes with his finger and said “Joseph this is my beloved Son hear him.” As soon as the Lord had touched his eyes with his finger he immediately saw the Savior. –John Alger’s testimony as told in the diary of Charles Lowell Walker
What I deduce from this quote and from what other accounts tell us about the first vision is that when Joseph said he saw “two personages”, there was something preventing clarity. Perhaps the veil was not completely opened. We can recognize that it was only after this anointing/ordination that he was allowed to actually see the Savior in clarity.
There is much we don’t commonly know regarding the First Vision. And if we really knew all the story, I’m sure many more questions may be answered. But we simply continue in faith based on what we do know.
Now about the multiple meanings: If we read only a few verses out of context, we don’t get a full grasp of what the section is talking about. Remember that the entirety of Section 84 is not about seeing the face of God, but about priesthood and ordinances. What are they good for; and why do we have them? Let’s read on:
23 Now this Moses plainly taught to the children of Israel in the wilderness, and sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God;
24 But they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory. D&C 84:23-24
Verse 23 is referring to a passage in Exodus
5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
7 And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him.
8 And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord.
9 And the Lord said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord.
10 And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes,
11 And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai.
Remember that the entire D&C is written to the Saints. Such messages must be looked at through that lens. The reference to Moses was given in this revelation to the Saints. This washing, sanctifying, etc. refers to more than the physical sight of the Lord’s face. It is clear to any endowed Latter-Day Saint that this is a reference to the temple ordinances, where we also “see the Lord’s face”. And without the priesthood and the ordinances thereof, we are not permitted into the endowment ceremony. To do so would bring down the wrath of God.
Now take this a step further. What is the endowment really about? It is a type and shadow of our final judgment. At the final judgment, what does it mean “and live” (the other portion of section 84 that I highlighted above)? By Alma’s words it means that as we “look and live” (Alma 33:19) we may receive Eternal Life.
Without the power of the priesthood and the ordinances thereof, we cannot learn to have the power of godliness manifest in our lives as mortals. If we cannot learn to live with that power on earth, we won’t be able to learn to endure that power later. Thus we cannot enter into His rest with the fulness of His glory and receive exaltation.
Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. Alma 34:34
To sum up:
We cannot endure the sight of God as mortals without being quickened. God will quicken the first prophet of each dispensation and ordain them at the same time. Further meaning in the verses is tied by the context of the section with temple ordinances and the final judgment.
We obtain a hope in Christ by the items in the Fourth Article of Faith as well as other ordinances. Then we live a life where the power of godliness is manifest consistently, that we may be prepared to look and live at the final judgment. I pray we may all do so.