Greek: καὶ οὐχ ἑαυτῷ τις λαμβάνει τὴν τιμήν, ἀλλὰ καλούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ θεοῦ, καθώσπερ καὶ Ἀαρών.
My Translation: And someone does not take to himself the honor, except he is bidden of God, even also as Aaron.
KJV: And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the original Greek text and the English.
Update May 2013 This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.
The Anonymous Letter to the Hebrews
The Letter to the Hebrews is completely anonymous and always has been since the earliest records of it. Of the author, an early Christian named Origen who lived in the 3rd Century CE said, "only God knows." Tradition has assigned it to Paul only because Paul wrote so many other letters in the New Testament (though some of these are written in his name by later authors), but its placement in the traditional order of book speaks to its uncertain status: whereas all of the letters of Paul are placed in order of length, from the longest (Romans) to the shortest (Philemon), Hebrews is placed afterwards. The modern LDS Church assumes Pauline authorship but only because this is the authorship assumed by early LDS Church leaders such as Joseph Smith. The book has no given author, and in the earliest manuscripts doesn't even have a title; it's called "To the Hebrews" because its focus and message is centered in Israelite temple ritual.
Whereas in Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus are important from an apocalyptic perspective (Jesus's rising from the dead heralds the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God), the author of Hebrews is interested in Jesus from the perspective of what his death means for the Israelite temple; the resurrection is not really emphasized in the letter. The main message of the book is an examination of what the author believes to be shortcomings of the Temple at Jerusalem and how Jesus's death makes up for these shortcomings.
The Shadow of Heaven
For the author, the rituals of sacrifice at the Jerusalem temple were meant to cleanse the people from sin, but the Jewish people themselves, including the priests, were already corrupted by sin by virtue of being human. Thus the cycle of sacrificial offerings needed to continuously occur because the rituals were performed by humans for humans. Their sacrifices were imperfect since they were performed by imperfect people using imperfect animals for the people. The only way for this situation to end was for a perfect human to perform a perfect sacrifice that would end sin for all. The author then presents Jesus as this divine human; divine in that he is perfect and is God, but human in that he suffers and cries out with tears. Of course, when the Jerusalem Temple had sacrifices they were performed on an altar, but Jesus was executed on a cross and wasn't literally sacrificed. The author resolves this by resorting to a complicated dual worldview. For the author, the temple at Jerusalem is merely a physical "shadow" of the perfect temple in heaven. The physical temple is run by High Priests descended from Aaron, Moses's brother. The heavenly temple is run by Jesus, who is a High Priest "after the order of Melchizedek" (more on this in a bit). The physical temple is continually having sacrifices of bread, incense, and animals for sins (which the people would then take home to eat afterwards), but the heavenly temple has only had one perfect sacrifice for the sin of all the world (celebrated by the Christian eucharist which the people eat). This sacrifice occurred in the heavenly temple, but the shadow in the physical world was Jesus's death on the cross. So for the author, the meaning of Jesus's death is that it takes everything that Jews viewed as important about their Temple and said that Jesus's death accomplished those same things, only better.
Hebrews is a complicated work, but if you keep this "shadow world" idea in mind it's much clearer than just trying to get through it on your own.
After the Order of Mechizedek
Okay, Hebrews contains this odd references to Melchizedek. Remember that the author is presenting the physical temple as inferior to the heavenly temple in every way. The Priests of the Jerusalem Temple were set up, according to Jewish scripture, by Moses himself and that the High Priests were descended from Aaron, his brother (and amazingly enough, there is some genetic evidence among modern Jews that there actually might have been a distinct genetic line among Temple priests that goes far back in time; not that I'm saying Aaron is a real historical person, but the lineage claimed to be his might have existed concurrent with the ancient Jerusalem Temple). How do you then present this ancient lineage as being inferior? The author goes back to Genesis and to a small story about Abraham, the oldest patriarch, whose grandson Jacob has twelve sons who became the twelve tribes of Israel, with one of those lines being the tribe of Levi who officiated in the Temple. The story is that Abraham, after he rescued his relative Lot who had been kidnapped by neighboring tribesmen, stopped at the town of Salem on his way home and was blessed by the King of Salem, Melchizedek, and Abraham gave him part of the spoils of the victory. The author of the Hebrews says that since Abraham was the ancestor of Levi and Aaron, that it was as though Levi and Aaron were also blessed by Melchizedek and gave him gifts and treated him as a superior (in sperm form, if that makes the image any easier). It also helps that Genesis says nothing else about Melchizedek, no explanation for why the ancient hero Abraham would have given him part of the spoils and shown deference to him. Around the time of the 1st Century, it appears that myths and legends had arisen about Melchizedek that because Genesis doesn't give his lineage that he had no lineage, but was a mythical individual of power who had not been born but had always existed (and thus had not died and continued to exist on the earth). Such an individual, with such a miraculous history, was surely an entity that Abraham would have shown deference to, and by extension, so too would Levi and eventually Aaron and eventually the Temple priests.
The Context for the Scripture Mastery Verse
So the author of Hebrews says that while the physical temple is presided over by Aaronic priests, the heavenly temple is presided over by Jesus, who is a priest following the order of Melchizedek.
The verse above, in context, is mentioning that the High Priest of the temple cannot assume that position on their own initiative, which is an odd choice of words, as many High Priests had assumed that office in the previous few centuries; it had become a highly politicized office (this politicization is what led the Dead Sea Scrolls community to remove themselves from Jerusalem and live in isolation above the Dead Sea, waiting for God to purify the world and the Temple). For this reason, it's assumed that he's not talking about any individual in question, but rather about Aaron himself, and about the Aaronic lineage. Aaron had not asked to be put in charge of God's temple, but God had bidden him to do it. The lineage was selected by God. Similarly, God's election of Jesus had not occurred because Jesus had sought it, but rather God had chosen him.
What does this matter? It matters because Mormons feel that, just as the Jerusalem Temple required priests of Levi to run it and descendants of Aaron to be High Priests, so too do Mormons feel that authority must be held to administer the modern Church. The LDS Church claims both the authority of the Aaronic Priesthood (though they make little claims to Aaronic ancestry) and the Melchizedek Priesthood mentioned by the author of Hebrews. For Mormons, this authority is not only required for the Church to function, it is the authority by which all things function. It was this authority that was lost through sin and apostasy that made a restoration needful.
For Mormons, this verse is saying that nobody can themselves claim the authority of the Priesthood. They must be called of God first. This means that all of the Christian Churches who baptized their people cannot do so authoritatively, as their leaders have all merely sought this authority on their own.
But this scripture is talking about *Jesus, *not about humans in general. And the purpose of Jesus's Melchizedek Priesthood authority, to the author of Hebrews, is to officiate over the great and lasting sin sacrifice of himself once and for all. It is a perfect Priesthood for a perfect sacrifice.
Modern Christians in general do not view authority as an important issue in regards to the few rituals that Christians have, such as the Eucharist or baptism. When this scripture is viewed in relation to regular human Christians, it is interpreted to mean that people should feel inspired or called by God before they undertake to minister to their fellow Christians.
The Mormon view of this scripture is wrapped up tightly with their historical development of two levels of Priesthood (a development that took a long time to occur as the Melchizedek Priesthood didn't even exist when the LDS Church was officially founded). Their presence in the LDS Church, when combined with this verse in Hebrews, is taken to mean that all men (as the LDS Priesthood is currently limited to only men, and until 1978 also excluded all blacks) are called of God when they receive an ordination to these two Priesthoods. Other Churches cannot make the same claims of authority as the LDS Church because they must be "called of God" before they can do so. Thus it is only the LDS Church that has the authority of these Priesthoods in action. Regular Christians, however, could certainly care less about this issue. And the author of Hebrews isn't talking about two levels of Priesthood present among early Christians, but is rather talking about an earthly Priesthood for the Jerusalem Temple's constant sacrifices and a heavenly Priesthood for the heavenly Temple's single great sacrifice.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
This scripture is a foundation for why Mormons believe that Priesthood is required for their rituals, such as baptism. Nobody can simply choose to baptise, but they must be called of God to do so, which is what Mormons consider ordination into the Priesthoods to be. However, the scripture in question is talking about how Jesus was called of God to perform his perfect sacrifice, which was performed only once, and says nothing about authority for rituals and ordinances in the Christian Church. Modern Christians either assume that membership in Christ's covenantal community bestows such authority as needed (called the "Priesthood of All Believers"), that authority for these rituals was never lost, or that authority is not needed for the rituals. Many Christians would be confused at an LDS reading of this scripture as a way to exclude their baptisms and sacraments as not being authorized because many Christians feel strongly that God inspires humans to various Christian ministries. To them, being "call of God, as was Aaron," is a call that can come to anyone and everyone.