“How can one distinguish the meaning of the word Lord in a particular case?” Ensign, Oct. 1978, 16–17
H. Donl Peterson, professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University A few years ago a student in one of my graduate classes wished to write a paper clarifying the appearances of various celestial beings upon the earth. He proposed column headings such as “God the Father,” “Jesus Christ,” “Holy Ghost,” “Named Angels,” “Unnamed Angels,” etc. After a few weeks he came back very discouraged, concluding that “a person just can’t do that.”
I tend to agree with his conclusion. Trying to determine which heavenly messenger is speaking in a particular case is often extremely difficult. I do feel, however, that we can clarify the issue by keeping several things in mind.
First of all, we know that God the Father and Jesus Christ are separate individuals, each having a distinct role. God the Father is the Supreme Being—no one in the Godhead is on a peer level with our Father in Heaven. Moses recorded an excellent scriptural statement on this subject:
God explained to Moses that “mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me.” (Moses 1:6; italics added.)
President Joseph F. Smith and his counselors explained that the phrase “there is no God beside me” meant “beside me, above me, or equal to me, or to be an object of worship.” They added that “the sole object of worship, God the Eternal Father, stands supreme and alone, and it is in the name of the Only Begotten that we thus approach him.” (See James R. Clark, Messages of the First Presidency, vol. 4, p. 270–271.)
God the Father is also the literal Father of our spirits. Prior to our earthly existence we were born and begotten of heavenly parents—we are literally the sons and daughters of Deity. (See Eccl. 12:7; Acts 17:28–29; and Heb. 12:9.) Jesus was the first Spirit Child born to God the Father; he is appropriately referred to in the scriptures as the Firstborn. (See Heb. 1:6; Col. 1:15–18; and D&C 93:21.) Jesus is unique, however, in another sense: he was the only son born of God in the flesh. He is therefore referred to in Holy Writ as the Only Begotten. (See John 1:14, 18; John 3:16, 18; 1 Jn. 4:9; and Alma 5:48; Alma 9:26; Alma 13:9.)
The rest of God’s spirit children have been privileged to come to the earth and dwell in mortal bodies prepared by their earthly parents. Jesus alone was a Son of God the Eternal Father, both in premortal life and in mortality.
God the Father is the author of the Plan of Salvation. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that “In the beginning, the head of the Gods called a council of the Gods; and they came together and concocted a plan to create the world and people it.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 349; see also John 3:16.) Jesus led the righteous majority in sponsoring and sustaining the great plan in the councils of heaven, but our Father in Heaven authored this plan for the salvation of his children.
God the Father is the Great Creator, creator of innumerable worlds. Even though he has delegated much responsibility to the Son, the Father is the Supreme Being in the creative process. (See Moses 1:33; Moses 2:1; and Heb. 1:1–3.)
The Savior also has distinct roles and responsibilities, delegated to him by our Heavenly Father throughout the ages. Jesus was the Father’s executive in preearth life, in mortality, and since his triumphant victory over death. Our Father in Heaven has allowed Jesus to speak to various prophets as if he were the Father. In the legal profession this is a well-understood practice referred to as the “power of attorney.” Jesus stated that “I am come in my Father’s name.” (John 5:43; see also John 10:25.) The First Presidency, in an excellent explanation of this principle, called this authority of Christ to speak for the Father in the first person “Divine Investiture of Authority.” (See James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith, Appendix 2, p. 470.)
Jesus is also a God. The Father is Supreme, but Jesus is also a member of the Godhead, and is by his calling a God. (See Heb. 1:8–12.) The Prophet Joseph stated: “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.” (Teachings, p. 370.)
Our Father in Heaven has bestowed great honors upon his Only Begotten because of his unwavering obedience. The Father has designated that the eternal gospel plan (see D&C 20:9), the holy priesthood (see D&C 107:3), and the Church (see D&C 115:4) all bear the name of Jesus Christ.
This discussion of roles may help us decide which of the two is speaking at a particular time. However, because the Father and the Son are one in unity and purpose, and since Jesus is authorized to speak for the Father in the first person, distinguishing the two can on occasion be more complicated. “Lord God” is used to designate both the Father and the Son in the scriptures. (See Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 450.)
In fact, very few sacred titles are used exclusively for one or the other. We can ask, for example, “Who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” We may think first of Jesus since the Father delegated responsibility for this earth to him. (See 1 Ne. 19:10 and 1 Cor. 10:4.) We must keep in mind, however, that some other prophets have understood this and yet they have designated God the Father as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (See Acts 3:15; Acts 5:30; and Acts 22:14.)
So I didn’t wonder that my student reached the conclusion he did. He discovered that with “divine investiture” positive identification is sometimes difficult, if not impossible. As he put it, “Sometimes it seems as if God the Father is speaking and then it seems to be Christ. Even angels speak as if they were Christ.” (See Rev. 22:8–9, 12–16.)
The prophets themselves probably knew to whom they spoke, but the identity of the messengers may have become confused in translation or transcription.
It seems to me, however, that as long as we are persuaded by the Spirit that the message is divine, we should not be overly concerned about the identification of the messenger.