20 And it came to pass that there was a man among them whose name was Abinadi;

In all ages of the world, God’s interactions with people follow the same pattern:  God sends messenger from His presence to preach repentance and teach truth.  If people take the invitation to repent, rise up, and receive God’s law, they will also be brought into God’s presence and saved (they will be redeemed).  A society composed of such people is Zion.  God has sent many prophets from his presence, empowered to extend that invitation, but it rarely results in Zion.  Instead, people’s reactions fall somewhere along a spectrum.  At one end is Zion, at the other end is destruction and annihilation. The touchstones along the spectrum from one extreme to the other might look something like this:

1. Zion—These people stand in the presence of the Father and Son, communing with the church of the firstborn, partaking of the heavenly gift. These people can remain faithful and enter into exaltation, return to sin and endure the buffetings of Satan before finally being saved, or altogether turn from the covenant of life and become perdition. Very few people in the history of the world, including the history of the LDS church, have ever reached this state.

2. People seeking to sanctify themselves, almost ready to enter the rest of the Lord (Moroni 7).  They have faith to begin receiving the good things of God, including miracles and angelic ministry. Again, very few people ever repent to this degree.

3. People who believe the messenger and understand his message, trying to cast off doubt and unbelief and develop faith to rise up.  They seek God, have received the baptism of fire and thereby entered the path to the tree of life, but either don’t yet have the faith to fully consecrate themselves, or are led to err because they still hearken to the precepts of men (2 Nephi 28:14).  Few in the history of the world ever reach this point, which requires sincere repentance and humility (Matthew 7:14, 2 Nephi 31:17-18).

4. People who refuse to hearken to the messenger, preferring to be guided by their own sense of morality. They are not actively seeking God, but their inner moral compass leads them to love others and avoid wickedness.   They may be members of a religion or not.

5. People who believe IN the messenger, but don’t seek to understand his message enough to fully believe him. They want him to be their intermediary with God.  They rely on the messenger Israel did this with Moses.  The Latter-day Saints did this with Joseph Smith.  These are zealous, religious people, attempting to preserve the truth as they see it.  In rejoicing that God sent a messenger, they often miss the point of the message (to rise up to God’s presence themselves).  These people take the flat, familial organization established by the initial messenger, and elaborate it into a strong, centrally controlled hierarchy.  Though they lack the revelatory experiences of the initial messenger, they attempt to codify religious behavior and systematize doctrine so their version of the restored religion can be reliably perpetuated.  They believe repentance and righteousness primarily involves  adherence to codified rules and conformity to imposed cultural and religious expectation.  They encourage personal revelation only as far as it fits within the institutional framework and conforms to the opinions of hierarchy. They have good intentions, but trust too much in the arm of the flesh, and their hearts are set too much on the things of this world. In conforming to externally imposed religious norms rather than being guided by the light within themselves, they stifle the light of Christ and damn themselves, all the while convinced they were righteous.  While they don’t progress toward exaltation, they also don’t descend into outright wickedness.  Their trust in their religion blinds them to it’s inability to save them, and to their culture’s true spiritual poverty, and they will be unlikely to accept another messenger sent by God to preach repentance. This is how restorations end and religions begin.

6. These are non-religious wicked people, or religious people who use the plasticity of religious codes to excuse their own wickedness, and the wickedness of their society.  If religious, they maintain a veneer of piety, but are decayed inside (Matt 23:37).  . They invariably see themselves as righteous, and will react with anger and hostility to any suggestion otherwise.  Their violent reactions to religious contradiction betray a deep insecurity stemming from their lack of connection with God.  When the chains of pride they use to bind their conscience are loosened by the plain preaching of true principles, they feel compelled to end their inner turmoil. To do this, they can either repent or cast out the messenger.  Most often, they cast out the messenger.  Their hostility to the messenger extends to those who believe him, and they will persecute them as well, including using the instruments of institutional power (religious or political) to silence and subdue them.  These people, and those in group 5, are cursed by God when they reject and persecute a messenger sent from God (DC 121:16).

7. These people are found in the same religion as groups 5 and 6.  They maintain the same veneer of piety, and teach the same doctrines. Their wickedness runs deeper, and their response to the messenger is proportionally more violent.  They will seek to torture and kill the messenger, and to persecute those who believe him.  The act of taking such a life, once it is permitted to happen, carries significant penalties (Matthew 21:41).

The vast majority of people in the history of the world fit into groups 4, 5, and 6.  Neither repenting and rising up to seek God, nor descending into murderous wickedness. However, if there is a large population of religious people (group 5), there will be many among them who are actually wicked (group 6), and a few among those wicked who are willing to kill to silence true messengers (group 7).   People in groups 5, 6, and 7 are often devoted to past prophets, and are zealous supporters of religious hierarchy. When the savior came to Joseph Smith in 1820, there were over 1 billion people on earth, most of them religious, but none being redeemed.  Today there are 6 billion more people, most of them religious, and still few, if any being redeemed.

Matthew 21 presents the pattern of the interaction between true prophets (group 1) and a group of people that has previously failed to establish Zion and established a religion instead (groups 5, 6, and 7).   Those religious people preserve and perpetuate an authentic covenant from God.  They preserve aaronic authority to perform outward ordinances and teach repentance.  They have temples, ordinances, and the scriptures. They remain God’s special interest until they forfeit their chance and the invitation is withdrawn and extended to another group.   According to Matthew 21, it is normal for the Lord to plant a vineyard and leave it to “husbandmen”.   Those husbandmen should and do have the authority to call other husbandmen to perpetuate their order.  They should and do have the authority to teach the instructions the Lord has left, and to tend the vineyard.  In addition, it is appropriate for the Lord of the vineyard to send “servants” from his presence to gather people into the presence of the Lord.  The servants have authority directly from the Lord to carry out their specific duty. They are not sent to unseat the husbandmen and take over the vineyard.  If the husbandmen would receive the ministry of the servants, the harvest would be carried out.

Instead, almost universally, the husbandmen covet the riches of the vineyard for themselves.  In their greed, their lust for power, or their well-intentioned need to be in control, they react violently to prevent the servants from returning the produce to the Lord. They cast them out, and occasionally kill them.

The servants are true prophets.  Speaking of the glories inherited by group 1 (Zion), Joseph Smith said “This is why Adam blessed his posterity: He wanted to bring them into the presence of God. They looked for a city, [that hath foundations, whose builder and maker was God]–Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into the presence of God, through the power of the Pristhood, but he could not. In the first ages of the world they tried to establish the same thing–& there were Elias’s raised up who tried to restore these very glories but did not obtain them” (July, 1839, Willard Richards Pocket Companion).  All true prophets  come as Eliases, seeking to “restore [the] very glories” which Adam offered by bringing people into God’s presence.  To do so, they must have been in the presence of the Lord themselves, and must have received his authority (Alma 13:6).  Joseph Smith also said of these men “All the Prophets had the Melchizedeck Priesthood and was ordained by God himself” (January 5, 1841, Clayton Record).

Joseph is not using the term “prophet” as we do in the church today, to indicate the members of the quorum of the 12 and the first presidency regardless of their personal connection/disconnection.  He is using it in the scriptural sense, to mean those who are invited into the presence of God to receive authority and instructions from Him (Amos 3:7).  Consequently, he is not using the term “Melchizedek Priesthood” to refer to the portion of authority active in the LDS Church today.  He is denoting the fulness of the melchizedek priesthood, which allows it’s holder to stand in God’s presence, receive the mysteries of heaven, and commune with the Church of the Firstborn (DC 107:18-19).  This authority can only be received from God, and therefore all prophets who operate with it must have received it from God directly, as Joseph said.

Significantly, Abinadi was not chosen from among Noah’s priests.  He was “among” the people, and was unknown to the hierarchy.  Church office is largely unconnected with where you are between groups 1 and 7.   Joseph Smith and Caiaphas each sat in Moses’ seat, but one was in group 1 and the other in group 7.   If anything, holding an office that allows you to suppose you have authority will prove a hindrance to most people’s humble journey to God (D&C 121:39-40).  God has called prophets from all walks of life, but seems to favor the weak, unnoticed, and despised, who have no official position requiring men to give heed to them (Matthew 21:16, 1 Cor. 1:27, D&C 1:19, D&C35:13). That way, only the truly humble will discern and obey the message, and only those not inclined to idolatry will receive it.  Enoch was despised by people before his prophetic call.  Abraham was nobody of note, by tradition the son of an artisan.  Isaiah was not a member of the priesthood.  Elijah was not of noteworthy parentage.  Lehi was of the tribe of manasseh, holding no priesthood and no position in the hierarchy.  John the Baptist was born to an obscure priest and raised in the wilderness.

God hardly ever sends a servant who is also a leader among the husbandmen.   This would require that presiding husbandman be more than just a “good” man, who is doing his best to be obedient.  It would require him to have an active relationship with the heavens such that he can converse in a familiar and friendly manner with God and receive direction from Him. In other words, he would need to belong to group 1. This kind of connection is rare among humans generally, but even rarer among religious and political leaders, who are less likely to have humility and meekness sufficient to be elected by God.  Only if one of the husbandmen has such a connection with God can he be sent to do the work of gathering.  The husbandmen may all be good men, seeking God but not yet finding him (group 5 or group 6).  In such a case, they will welcome the ministry of a servant of God, even if he comes from outside their ranks.

Couldn’t God use his almighty power to steer true prophets into the presiding offices of the church so it was always led by true prophets?  Certainly, if he wanted.   However, the scriptures indicate that he has never decided to do that in past dispensations, and they contain no promise that he will do it in ours. Indeed, the Latter-day Saints are specifically warned that the opposite will be true (D&C 101:43-62, D&C 112:24-26, D&C 121:34-40).  Since God cannot override the agency of the membership, the members are just as likely to idolize a true prophet as they are an unispired husbandman, if he occupies the chief seat.  God seems to prefer that those who are unwilling to hear not be forced to hear (Matthew 13:13).  Therefore when people are most likely to idolize office He sends those without official credentials to teach, so only those among them who don’t blindly trust in the arm of the flesh will receive it (D&C 1:19).  So God uses his power to place over the vineyard the husbandmen they deserve.

For instance, see Isaiah’s description of Israel in his day: “the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep. For behold, ye have closed your eyes, and ye have rejected the prophets; and your rulers, and the seers hath he covered because of your iniquity” (2 Nephi 27:5).  These people were sent prophets, but they rejected them. Therefore their rulers and their seers were covered.  When Isaiah wrote it, it was to the israelite vineyard of his day. When Nephi quotes it, he applies to the gentile vineyard in the last days.  In such cases, a man like Isaiah, Lehi, or Abinadi can be sent from outside the hierarchy, specifically to subvert the idolatry of people’s expectations.

Hence, Abinadi came to preach to King Noah’s people.

20 (continued): and he went forth among them, and began to prophesy, saying: Behold, thus saith the Lord, and thus hath he commanded me, saying, Go forth, and say unto this people, thus saith the Lord—Wo be unto this people, for I have seen their abominations, and their wickedness, and their whoredoms; and except they repent I will visit them in mine anger.

Abinadi is not freelancing.  He is not on a self-initiated crusade.  He did not decide to become a preacher after feeling a vague spiritual ‘call’.  He did not sit down beforehand and compose a sermon from his own wisdom.  He was not asked to teach these things by the husbandmen, nor did he require their permission.  He is not reporting an ambiguous feeling that he thinks might have come from God.  He is simply bearing testimony.  He is reporting God’s words, according to strict instruction.

As Joseph Smith said: “All the Prophets had the Melchizedeck Priesthood and was ordained by God himself” (January 5, 1841, Clayton Record).  The Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis 14 describes how this priesthood empowers one who receives it:

“For God having sworn unto Enoch and unto his seed with an oath by himself; that every one being ordained after this order and calling should have power, by faith, to break mountains, to divide the seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course;

To put at defiance the armies of nations, to divide the earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command, subdue principalities and powers; and this by the will of the Son of God”

These powers are necessary for someone who is going to be God’s servant.  Husbandmen can and do serve without this priesthood, though all would benefit from their obtaining it. Also necessary for a servant is the limitation that they must “do all things according to his will, according to his command”.  Every action undertaken must be “by the will of the Son of God.”

Abinadi declares that he holds this priesthood by testifying that he is reporting exactly what God told him to say.  He later demonstrates that he is properly empowered when he puts at defiance Noah’s priests when they attempt to use physical force.  He showed the required submission to the will of the Son of God when he withheld the use of his power and allowed himself to be killed.

The ability to stand in the presence of God (JST Gen 14, D&C 84:19-22, D&C 107:18-19) is one of the most important distinguishing features of this priesthood.   If a man has not done that, he cannot claim to be a priest after Melchizedek’s order, nor can he claim to lead anyone to life and salvation.  As Joseph Smith wrote: “the Keys of this priesthood consisted in obtaining the voice of Jehovah that he talked with him in a familiar and friendly manner, that he continued to him the Keys, the Covenants, the power and the glory with which he blessed Adam at the beginning.” (October 5, 1840).    It is only by receiving these keys, covenants, power, and glory that a man is qualified for prophetic ministry.  They can only be obtained directly from God (D&C 124:94-96), and cannot be passed man to man.

Those of us who are unredeemed would do well to pay careful attention to the teachings of a man or woman who has obtained “the more sure word of prophecy.”  Such people, having “the testimony of Jesus”, are “a light that shineth in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19).  No matter how willing others may be to preach to you, they cannot, of themselves, lead anyone in the way of life and salvation. When the blind lead the blind, they all fall into the pit together.  The best that unredeemed men can do is point strictly to the words of true prophets, confining their teaching to only what they can show by scripture, bearing testimony of their own belief.

Since Abinadi was after the order of Melchizedek, I wonder what would happen if the people accepted his testimony and repented. Melchizedek’s story might have been Abinadi’s:

Now this Melchizedek was a king over the land of Salem; and his people had waxed strong in iniquity and abomination; yea, they had all gone astray; they were full of all manner of wickedness;

But Melchizedek having exercised mighty faith, and received the office of the high priesthood according to the holy order of God, did preach repentance unto his people. And behold, they did repent; and Melchizedek did establish peace in the land in his days; (Alma 13:17-18)

And his people wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken, separating it from the earth, having reserved it unto the latter days, or the end of the world; (JST Gen 14:34)

Had the people received Abinadi’s ministry, they could have obtained heaven.  Instead, they are numbered among the damned of the telestial kingdom, who are “of Moses” but “receive not…the prophets” (D&C 76:100-101).  Abinadi became one of the many spoken of by Joseph Smith, an ‘Elias’ who was “raised up who tried to restore these very glories but did not obtain them” (July, 1839, Willard Richards Pocket Companion)