THE GREATEST GIFTS
What is the greatest gift offered to men in the eternal scheme of things?
The answer is in D&C 14:7: "And if you keep my commandments and endure to the end you shall have eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God."
What is the greatest gift available to men while they are mortals on the earth?
The answer was given by President Wilford Woodruff: "Now, if you have the Holy Ghost with you—and every one ought to have—I can say unto you that there is no greater gift, there is no greater blessing, there is no greater testimony given to any man on earth. You may have the administration of angels; you may see many miracles; you may see many wonders in the earth; but I claim that the gift of the Holy Ghost is the greatest gift that can be bestowed upon man" (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, Chapter 5: "The Holy Ghost and Personal Revelation").
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GIFT OF THE HOLY GHOST (John 16)
The Gift of the Holy Ghost is so important that after telling his disciples that he would be going away, Christ said to them (and I am using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible here because I think its translation makes the meaning clearer):
"Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [Gift of the Holy Ghost] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.
"I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears [from me], and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you." (John 16:6-14 NRSV).
When Joseph Smith was asked by the President of the United States what made his church different than others, President Smith replied that our church "differed in mode of baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. We considered that all other considerations were contained in the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Teaching of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, p. 97; also David A. Bednar, "Receive the Holy Ghost," Ensign, November 2010).
In 1847, Brigham Young had a marvelous dream in which the Prophet Joseph Smith appeared to him. When Brigham asked whether he had a message for the brethren, Joseph said, “Tell the people to be humble and faithful, and be sure to keep the spirit of the Lord and it will lead them right. Be careful and not turn away the small still voice; it will teach you what to do and where to go; it will yield the fruits of the kingdom. Tell the brethren to keep their hearts open to conviction, so that when the Holy Ghost comes to them, their hearts will be ready to receive it...They can tell the Spirit of the Lord from all other spirits; it will whisper peace and joy to their souls; it will take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts; and their whole desire will be to do good, bring forth righteousness and build up the kingdom of God” (Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846–1847, compiled by Elden J. Watson, Salt Lake City, 1971, page 529; quoted in James E. Faust, "The Gift of the Holy Ghost--A Sure Compass", Ensign, Apr. 1996).
In October of 1880, President Woodruff was visited in a vision by President Brigham Young, who had died three years earlier. Guess what his message was? "I want you to teach the people—and I want you to follow this counsel yourself—that they must labor and so live as to obtain the Holy Spirit, for without this you cannot build up the kingdom; without the Spirit of God you are in danger of walking in the dark, and in danger of failing to accomplish your calling as apostles and as elders in the church and kingdom of God.”
The Gift of the Holy Ghost and the ability to heed its direction is so important that two prophets came back from the Other Side to emphasize that message.
President Woodruff said, "The Church of God could not live 24 hours without the spirit of revelation."
This was the truth that Jesus Christ also knew, so he promised his Apostles that he would leave the Gift of the Holy Ghost with them: "But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me. And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:26-27).
WAIT...WHAT? THE APOSTLES DIDN'T ALREADY HAVE THE GIFT OF THE HOLY GHOST?
Why wouldn't the apostles, the special witnesses of Christ, already have had the Gift of the Holy Ghost?
Let's look at a history of the Gift of the Holy Ghost throughout the ages to see why this was something new at this time.
A HISTORY OF THE GIFT OF THE HOLY GHOST
The Gift of the Holy Ghost was available both before and after Christ's ministry on earth.
"That as many as would believe and be baptized in his holy name, and endure in faith to the end, should be saved--Not only those who believed after he came in the meridian of time, in the flesh, but all those from the beginning, even as many as were before he came, who believed in the words of the holy prophets, who spake as they were inspired by the gift of the Holy Ghost, who truly testified of him in all things, should have eternal life, as well as those who should come after, who should believe in the gifts and callings of God by the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of the Father and of the Son" (D&C 20:25-27).
THE GIFT OF THE HOLY GHOST BEFORE CHRIST'S MINISTRY
At the very beginning of time, the Gift of the Holy Ghost was available.
"And thus the Gospel began to be preached, from the beginning, being declared by holy angels sent forth from the presence of God, and by his own voice, and by the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Moses 5:5).
Adam was baptized and given the gift of the Holy Ghost. (See Moses 6:64-66.) There are two ways in which the Gift of the Holy Ghost can be bestowed, and both require the Melchizedek Priesthood: 1) by the laying on of hands by one holding the Melchizedek Priesthood; 2) by descent straight from heaven if there is no priesthood holder on the earth. The second instance is rare. We find it in the case of Adam, the first man on earth, and in the case of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the first to receive the gift after the Great Apostacy (see JS-H 1:73).
Historically, the Melchizedek Priesthood was not passed on by lineage from father to son as the Aaronic Priesthood was, but individually by calling, according to personal righteousness. (See Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 478.) The body of the church was left with only the Aaronic Priesthood in the time of Moses, although individual prophets may have received it possibly in a similar manner to the way Joseph Smith did, by the visitation of angelic or translated beings or by the laying on of hands by another singular prophet upon the earth. We have no record regarding this, so we don't know for sure, but it seems likely considering the power that some prophets exhibited.
THE GIFT OF THE HOLY GHOST IN AMERICA
The Nephites left Jerusalem and sailed to America in 600 B.C. Whether Lehi was one of those few prophets who held the Melchizedek Priesthood before he left Jerusalem, or whether it was bestowed upon someone among the Nephites after that time is unknown, but it was present among them at the time of Alma. Alma, in calling the Nephites to repentance, stated that they had been "favored above every other nation, kindred, tongue, or people," and one of those favors was the gift of the Holy Ghost. (See Alma 9:20-21.)
Alma testified of many who were ordained high priests "after the order of the Son," which is the original name for the Melchizedek Priesthood (see JST Gen. 14:25-28) and it seems within the context of his preaching that he was speaking of Nephite high priests, and offering that opportunity to Nephites who would repent. (See Alma 13:1-14.)
Alma certainly held the Melchizedek Priesthood, since he "set apart" his fellow missionaries as they left to reclaim the apostate Zoramites by "clapping" his hands upon them, after which "they were filled with the Holy Spirit." (See Alma 31:36.)
THE GIFT OF THE HOLY GHOST AFTER CHRIST'S MINISTRY
At the Day of Pentacost, after many powerful manifestations of the Holy Ghost, "Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38).
Interestingly, the Samaritans whose religion and race had become corrupted and who were therefore looked down upon by the Jews, were some of the first converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ, having heard and believed the testimony of the woman at the well (See John 4), and were also some of the first to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost.
"Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: "For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost" (Acts 8:14-17). Lineage, past history, and outward appearances do not matter to God, only the sincerity of the heart.
Then, after Saul was struck blind by the Lord as he went about persecuting the Saints, he was brought unto "a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias," and Ananias restored his sight, baptized him, and bestowed upon him the Holy Ghost. (See Acts 9:1-18.)
Later, Saul, now renamed Paul, was recorded as rebaptizing and then conferring the Gift of the Holy Ghost on twelve disciples who were in Ephesus. (See Acts 19:1-7.) Possibly they were local Church leadership who would then be able to confer the Gift upon their members.
Of course, there are many latter-day scriptures about the Gift of the Holy Ghost being present in the restored Church. (See, for example, JS-H 1:69-73; D&C 20:41; D&C 33:15; D&C 68:25; D&C 84:64.)
THE GIFT OF THE HOLY GHOST IN THE NEXT LIFE
It is even necessary for those who join the Church in the next life to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Not only are we baptized vicariously for the dead, but we also receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost for the dead. (See D&C 138:32-33.)
So if the Gift of the Holy Ghost is that important, why was it not present during the ministry of Christ?
THE HOLY GHOST DURING CHRIST'S MINISTRY
The power of the Holy Ghost has been available in all times, to all peoples (1 Ne. 10:17-18). It is through the Spirit that the testimony of Christ is received. It is the "whisperings" and "promptings" that good people of all races, religions, and ages, including the Dark Ages, have responded to in order to further God's work in their own sphere. But the Melchizedek Priesthood, as stated above, left the earth with Moses, and so did the Gift of the Holy Ghost. John the Baptist was a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood, as was his father before him, which is why he "baptized with water only, not the Holy Ghost" (Acts 1:5). Jesus, when he was baptized of John, received the Gift of the Holy Ghost straight from Heaven, not through John (Luke 3:22; 2 Ne. 31:8).
The Gift of the Holy Ghost was not given to the disciples in Jesus' time "because that Jesus was not yet glorified, for the Holy Ghost was promised unto them who believe, after that Jesus was glorified" (John 7:39, with JST footnote).
Elder Joseph Fielding Smith stated that “The disciples of Jesus did not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost while he was with them. The reason for this, in part at least, was due to the fact that they had with them to guide and teach them the second member of the Godhead, even Jesus himself. While he was with them there was no occasion for them to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Before the Savior left them, he promised to send them the Comforter, or Holy Ghost.” ( Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:159, quoted in Institute Manual, section 24-6.)
When Jesus returned to the earth after his resurrection, he bestowed the Gift of the Holy Ghost upon his disciples. "Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost" (John 20:19-22). (So maybe there are actually three ways of bestowing the Holy Ghost, if this is a correct translation--being breathed upon by Christ being the third way.)
When promising this Gift to his disciples during the days before his death, the Savior said, "The comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:26-27). This same gift of peace he has left with us in our day, even the Gift of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost can pass messages to us so true that it is as if Jesus were here personally directing our lives. The Holy Ghost is more like a relay station than a mutual friend. "He will guide you into all truth; for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you" (John 16:13-14).
President Faust aptly framed the wonder and the glory of this gift when he said, "If in this life we cannot live in the presence of the Savior as did Simon Peter, James, John, Mary, Martha, and the others, then the gift of the Holy Ghost can be our Comforter and sure compass.
THE GREAT INTERCESSORY PRAYER (John 17)
After teaching of and promising the Gift of the Holy Ghost, Jesus offered a prayer in behalf of his followers--a blessing upon them before he left.
(All of the following comments in blue come from a Messianic Jewish scholar, David H. Stern, in his Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 203-204. I could not find a good LDS commentary on the intercessary prayer, but Mr. Stern's comments align with LDS doctrine beautifully.)
"In this intercessory prayer we see deeply into the Messiah's heart--into the intimacy of the relationship between the Son and the Father on the one hand, and between the Son and his [disciples] on the other. The depth of this prayer exceeds that possible to any mere human; it presupposes that Yeshua [Jesus] came forth from God, had the Father's glory before the world existed (v. 5), shares all that belongs to the Father (v. 10), can give the Father's glory to believers (v. 22), is eternal (v. 5, 24) and has uniquely intimate knowledge of the Father (v. 25).
V. 1-3: "These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that the Son also may glorify thee; As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent."
"Eternal life is not merely survival after death, which everyone shares, but having intimate "knowledge" of the Father and the Son. The Hebrew word for "knowledge" [used here] is "da'at," [and] denotes not only the comprehending of the acts and circumstances of the world, but also the most intimate experiencing of the object of knowledge." It is knowledge gained through experience.
According to LDS.org Gospel Study, "Eternal life is the phrase used in scripture to define the quality of life that our Eternal Father lives."
V. 4-5: "I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do. And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was."
"This verse teaches the pre-existence of the Messiah."
V. 14-16: "I have given [my disciples] thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world."
"Believers are expected to be involved in...repairing the world. [They] are not to separate themselves altogether, but to act like yeast causing the world's dough to rise...not being conquered by evil but conquering it with good.
V. 17: "Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth."
"To sanctify is to separate for holiness, to set apart for God. This separateness is not a physical removal from other people and their concerns but a spiritual relocation into God's sphere of being."
V. 18-20: "As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word."
"Here Yeshua is praying for all the millions down through the centuries who have come to trust in him because these twelve faithfully communicated the Gospel. The ensuing verses are Yeshua's one prayer specifically for us."
V. 21-23: "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me."
The Greek word translated here as "in" is "hard to convey by a single English word, for it can mean 'in the sphere of, in connection with, within, inside, by, on, near, among, with.' Overall, the word conveys intimacy and involvement: Yeshua and the Father are intimately involved and concerned with each other's existence, even to the point of being 'one.' Thus Yeshua prays that the unity between believers and himself, between believers and the Father and between believers and other believers will have the same character as the unity between himself and the Father." In LDS terms, Jesus is praying for a Zion people!
V. 24-26: "Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me. And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou has loved me may be in them, and I in them."
I think there is something highly significant about names that we of the present century do not comprehend. All names in the Bible have meanings which relate to the character of the person, the purpose of his or her life, and/or the circumstances in which he or she is found. For example, in Ruth 1:20, after the deaths of her husband and sons, Naomi (which means "pleasant") says she must now be called Mara (which means "bitter"). Christ changed the name of Simon, the first apostle, whose name meant "to hear, or to be heard," to Peter, which meant "rock." Even though Christ changed his name, the first name did not entirely go away, and very often he was called Simon Peter. Considering that Joseph Smith said that the "rock" upon which Christ would build his church was not Peter himself, but the revelation that Peter would receive to guide the church, it is interesting that "to hear, or to be heard" was retained as a part of his name. He was the one who would "hear" the word of the Lord and "be heard" as he taught it to the people through the "rock" of revelation!
So when Christ said "I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it," he meant he had declared unto them his Father's character, his mission, his purpose. The next word in the verse is "that", which is a much more significant word than we might think: it links a cause to an effect. His declaring his Father's name is what would bring seekers to that intimate knowledge of God, or a state of unity in which "the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them."
The way that he declared his Father's name is found in v. 6-8: "I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word. Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee. For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me." It was through his being one with the Father and then acting on the earth as the Father would, serving all with great love and power that his disciples gained knowledge of their Father in Heaven.
We too can receive the great blessings Christ desired for us in his intercessary prayer:
V. 9-13: "I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.
"And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name [by demonstrating thy character, thy purpose, thy power] those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name [by demonstrating thy character, thy purpose, thy power]; those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled. And now come I to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves."
So if we desire to be beneficiaries of this great intercessory prayer, this is what we must do: We must take upon us the name of Christ, meaning we must take upon us his character, his mission, his purpose. We become his kin. Then we must serve and teach others with great love and power as he would. That is what it means to take upon us his name.
Fortunately, we have the marvelous Gift of the Holy Ghost, which makes it possible! Through the Holy Ghost, we can know the will of the Lord. Through the Holy Ghost, we can comprehend the word of the Lord. Through the Holy Ghost, we can feel and share the love of God. Through the Holy Ghost, we can act with great power. Through the Holy Ghost, we can attain a state of godly peace and joy, even while in our mortal life.
Who wouldn't want that?