After leading the children of Israel out of slavery, Moses consecrated his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons to serve as priests. They were given special clothing to wear, but Aaron’s clothing was distinct from the others. He wore a vest or apron called the ephod (אֵפוֹד). He wore a breastplate which contained the Urim and Thummim. And on his mitre, there was a gold plate, engraved with the words “HOLINESS TO THE LORD” (קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַֽיהוָֽה) (Exodus 28).
Aaron and his sons were ceremonially washed, clothed, and anointed to serve as priests (Exodus 29:4-9).
Aaron had special duties that only he could perform. For example, only he could enter the Holy of Holies of the tabernacle, and only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16).
Each of Aaron’s successors was called the “high priest” (kohen gadol, כהן גדול) (Leviticus 21:10, Numbers 35:25, 28). At first the office passed from father to son, but eventually secular leaders began appointing high priests (Bible Dictionary, “High priest“).
In the Book of Mormon, a high priest is a leader of the church. When Alma established a church at the waters of Mormon, he consecrated priests to teach the people. But “Alma was their high priest, he being the founder of their church” (Mosiah 23:16).
After Alma and his people escaped from bondage and were reunited with the people in the land of Zarahemla, Alma established churches and ordained priests in many cities (Mosiah 25:19). Even though there were now many churches, he continued to serve as the high priest over all of them, including dealing with issues which local priests were unable to resolve (Mosiah 26:7).
When Alma died, his son (also named Alma) became the second high priest over the church (Mosiah 29:42).
Over time, the term “high priest” began to be used more broadly, denoting leaders at multiple levels in the church. For example, when Korihor criticized church leaders, he spoke first to Ammon (the high priest in the land of Jershon), then to Giddonah (the high priest in the land of Gideon), and finally to Alma (the high priest over the entire church) (Alma 30:20-23, 29).
These leadership roles and structures were necessary in order to maintain the organization of the church. But Alma saw something holier and more profound in this priesthood office, something which was not limited to a single leader.
Speaking to the people of Ammonihah, Alma said that the “holy calling” of the “high priesthood” was “prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son” (Alma 13:5).
He said that “there were many who were ordained and became high priests of God” (Alma 13:10). When they took upon themselves this “holy order,” they were sanctified, “their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb,” and they “entered into the rest of the Lord” (Alma 13:12).
Then, Alma urged his listeners to humble themselves and repent, so that they could also enter into that rest (Alma 13:13).
In ancient Israel, when the high priest made an atonement in the Holy of Holies, he was acting on behalf of all of the people (Leviticus 16:15-16). Likewise, the purpose of a high priest is not to establish an aristocracy—a class apart—separated from the members of the church. Rather it is to show the way, so that everyone can receive the power of God in their lives and obtain all of the blessings He offers His children.
Today, I will be grateful for spiritual leaders—high priests—who have been cleansed and sanctified by the grace of God, and who are therefore able to help others be cleansed as well. I will remember that the spiritual treasures enjoyed by those high priests are available to all of God’s children who humble themselves before Him and repent of their sins.