I received the following email:
"I was just reading an article about the ancient temple, and I was thinking about the office of high priest. Though we had discussed that our modern-day designation of that privilege was different from its historical significance, it seems to me that they (before and during Christ's day) had made a similar change. They had high priests working in the temple. Were all these people real High Priests, or was this an administrative office that was created? Were these men righteous? Did they know the Lord? Did they influence the sinful changes that were made over time in the temple rites and symbols?"
My response is this:
I think the same thing happened then, as happened in our day. Some of those "high priests" may have come to know God, and others not. Those levitical high priests, though, were office holders in an earthly order that was intended to initiate them or invite them to receive more. This tradition or order was passed down even until the time of Christ. It was tragically the high priest, Caiaphas, to whom Christ was delivered for judgment as a part of his sufferings. Caiaphas' "high priesthood" meant nothing, except perhaps added responsibility to serve others, and added condemnation for his hypocrisy and rejection of the true High Priest when He was presented before him. His office gave him no priesthood. He sought to control others and the heavens had withdrawn themselves (D&C 121:37).
David Whitmer thought it was wrong to introduce the office of high priest in the Church. He said:
"High Priests were only in the church before Christ; and to have this office in the "Church of Christ" is not according to the teachings of Christ in either of the sacred books: Christ himself is our great and last High Priest" (An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 62).
David Whitmer assumed God's intent was to establish the kind of church we find outlined in the New Testament. This was not the Lord's intent, however. He also failed to realize that Joseph was trying to do something more than merely mimic the offices found in the Old Testament church. He didn't understand that there was something more ancient and holy that God intended to restore in the end of the world (Moses 6:7).
We're now left with an Old Testament office in a New Testament church. The revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, however, seem to indicate this is how the Lord desired the church structure to be established.
The high priests in the Old Testament church were offices intended to pre-figure the great High Priest who was the Messiah. Their instructions, which were established by the Lord, were all intended to testify of His role as Christ. If you look at the patterns in their rituals and rites you see Christ. That is why when the Lord walked on the road to Emmaus with Luke and Cleopas he expounded the scriptures unto them concerning himself, "beginning at Moses and all the prophets" (Luke 24:27). He wanted to make clear to them what they could not see before. He wanted to show that all of the symbols, rituals, and offices that had been put in place were to point to Him and His great sacrifice.
The High Priests God intended to restore in our day will be established before the return of Zion. Those High Priests are not made by the Church, nor is it an office within the Church (D&C 77:11). The High Priests made by God become members of the church of the Firstborn (ibid.). This is the way it was anciently and the way it is today. That priesthood cannot be perpetuated by men from generation to generation in a church. It comes from God.
We live in a telestial world. The Church is intended to bring us out of this telestial world, but it, too, belongs to the telestial world. Its ordinations and rites are intended to invite us to receive more, to elevate our minds and inspire our hearts to search after the things of another world.
There are different priesthoods. What we receive from man, or in or from the Church, is telestial. Though the term "high priest" could be used to describe both Moses and the Old Testament's presiding officers in the levitical priesthood, they are priesthoods after different orders, worlds, and glories - they are tied to different Gods. There are three members of the Godhead, three degrees of glory, and three priesthoods.
History has repeated itself. The Israelites forgot they never had what Moses had, but they persisted in a course of action suggesting they thought they were to be heirs of the same salvation. They wanted to be brought to Abraham's bosom, but not to become like Abraham. They were given a carnal law, or a law of this world, but ended up believing that it would bring them salvation (Mosiah 12:32).