“By what authority did Lehi offer sacrifices?” Ensign, Mar. 1994, 54
Paul Y. Hoskisson, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University. From the beginning of the world, God has sought to bless his children by bestowing on his worthy sons the Melchizedek Priesthood, “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God” (D&C 107:3; see also Alma 13:7). Scripture affirms that Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, and others held this priesthood (see D&C 84:14–16, 25; D&C 107:53; Moses 6:67).
The Melchizedek Priesthood was to have continued among the descendants of Israel in order to bless the inhabitants of the earth. Through Moses, for example, God expressed to the children of Israel the desire to make of them a royal generation of priesthood holders (See Ex. 19:5–6). But because the children of Israel were disobedient in the days of Moses, the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood were withdrawn from them (see Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., comp. Bruce R. McConkie, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 3:83–85; see also Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, 4 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979–81, 1:60).
Thus, from the days of Moses until the coming of Christ in the meridian of time, the inhabitants of Israel were not generally given the Melchizedek Priesthood, and only the Levites held the Aaronic Priesthood and administered the obligations and duties of the law of Moses.
The Lord, however, did not leave his people, the Israelites, without the guidance of Melchizedek Priesthood leadership. All the prophets held the higher priesthood, having been ordained by the hand of God (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 180–81). It was by right of this higher priesthood that the Old Testament prophets performed their labors in the name of the God of Israel and could officiate in the ordinances of the Aaronic Priesthood, just as today bishops in the Church officiate in an Aaronic Priesthood office by right of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
About 600 B.C., Lehi was called as one of these prophets to preach repentance to the inhabitants of Israel, a people who generally did not hold the priesthood. When he left Jerusalem at God’s command, Lehi was aware that he and his family were forming a separate branch of the house of Israel (see 1 Ne. 15:12). Though the Book of Mormon does not explicitly state so, Lehi, like all other prophets in Old Testament times, held the Melchizedek Priesthood.
For this reason, the Nephites, without having Levites among them, could rightfully officiate in the ordinances of the law of Moses. Thus, in Book of Mormon lands, the Nephites administered the ordinances and blessings of the law of Moses before the coming of Christ and the law of the gospel after the coming of Christ by the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Also, Nephi’s consecration of Jacob and Joseph to be priests and teachers was, as Joseph Fielding Smith explained, “a general assignment to teach, direct, and admonish the people,” not an ordination to specific offices in the Aaronic Priesthood (see Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957, 1:124–25).
It seems clear, then, that before Jesus Christ visited the Nephites and organized the Church in its fulness, Lehi and later Nephite prophets and Church leaders presided in various religious capacities by virtue of the Melchizedek Priesthood. In the Book of Mormon, this divine authority is referred to as “the holy order of God” (Alma 5:44; Alma 13:1; Alma 43:1–2; see also 2 Ne. 6:2).
Although the Book of Mormon does not at first glance seem to place emphasis on Melchizedek Priesthood lines as we do today, yet it is from beginning to end the record kept by the holders and administrators of that priesthood among the Nephites. Moreover, the Book of Mormon is its own best illustration of the roles and responsibilities of Melchizedek Priesthood holders among the inhabitants of this earth. In it we find examples of righteous men and women who allowed the Melchizedek Priesthood to bless their lives. In the words of Alma, one of the great prophets and Melchizedek Priesthood leaders in the Book of Mormon, those who were ordained to the higher priesthood were to “teach [Christ’s] commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest” (Alma 13:6). Those who study the Book of Mormon and apply its teachings in their lives have a greater appreciation for the blessings and ordinances that can be received through the Melchizedek Priesthood.