Section 137: Vision of the Celestial Kingdom
As the sun was setting on the evening of Thursday, January 21, 1836, about forty men entered the nearly completed Kirtland Temple. Although the outside plastering had been completed, workers were busy at the time plastering and painting the interior. These priesthood bearers climbed the circular staircase to the third, or top, floor, an attic which had been divided into five classrooms. Some of the men gathered with Joseph in the west room which was being used as a classroom for the study of Hebrew. This was referred to as the “translating room.” Joining Joseph in that room were his two counselors, his father (who was serving as Patriarch), Hyrum Smith, the two bishoprics (one from Missouri and the other from Kirtland), and Joseph’s scribe, Warren Parrish. The twenty-four members of the two high councils gathered in two adjoining rooms. While members of the high councils waited and prayed, the others participated in the ordinance of anointing their heads with holy oil. The Presidency then met with the high councils of Kirtland and Zion in the adjoining rooms.
The Presidency then anointed Father Smith with oil and gave him a blessing. Each member of the Presidency gave Father Smith a blessing separately. All of the Presidency then laid hands upon the head of Joseph Smith “and pronounced upon my head many prophecies and blessings, many of which I shall not notice at this time. But as Paul said, so say I, let us come to visions and revelations” (HC, 2:380). Then followed the vision recorded in section 137. Section 137 is only a portion of the revelation recorded in the History of the Church. The remainder of the revelation does not pertain to the subject for which this portion was included in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Before this remarkable vision ended, the high councilors from Kirtland and Missouri joined Joseph and the others in the west room where they also received their anointings.
During this evening, angels ministered not only to Joseph but also to many others who had received their anointings. Some of them saw the face of the Savior, and the spirit of prophecy and revelation was poured out in power. Oliver Cowdery also bore his testimony of the experience: “The glorious scene was too great to be described. I only say that the heavens were opened to many, and great and marvelous things were shown” (Journal of Edward Partridge, January 21, 1836; Cowdery Sketch Book, January 21, 1836). This solemn assembly probably continued until after midnight, for the Prophet recorded in his diary that he retired between one and two o’clock in the morning.
Even though this vision has been known and used by the Church since that day, it was not canonized and accepted as part of the standard works until April 3, 1976. Under the direction of President Spencer W. Kimball, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve approved the addition of this revelation to the Pearl of Great Price. Those assembled in general conference sustained the proposal, and this vision was made part of the standard works. On June 22, 1979, the First Presidency announced that this revelation would be moved from the Pearl of Great Price to the Doctrine and Covenants, where it would become known as section 137. The reason given for this change was to accommodate the cross-referencing system that would be instituted in the 1981 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The importance of canonizing this revelation, along with section 138 in the Doctrine and Covenants, was commented on by Elder Boyd K. Packer: “We live in a day of great events relating the scriptures. It has been only a short time since two revelations were added to the standard works. . . . I was surprised, and I think all of the Brethren were surprised, at how casually that announcement of two additions to the standard works was received by the Church. But we will live to sense the significance of it; we will tell our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren, and we will record in our diaries, that we were on the earth and remember when that took place” (“Teach the Scriptures,” in Charge to Religious Educators, 21).
D&C 137 Vision of the Celestial Kingdom
D&C 137:1-4 I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof.
D&C 137:5-9 All who would have received the gospel if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom. . . . For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.
D&C 137:10 All children . . . who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.
verses 1-4 The glorious description of the celestial kingdom!
1 The heavens were opened upon us, and I beheld the celestial kingdom of God, and the glory thereof, whether in the body or out I cannot tell.
verse 1 “whether in the body or out I cannot tell” The experience of the Prophet and those who were with him when this revelation was received is similar to what Nephi experienced when, as he sat pondering the things taught by his father, he was caught away in the Spirit of the Lord to a high mountain or to what Paul observed when he—“whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell” (2 Corinthians 12:3)— was caught up to the third heaven. The prophet Joseph explained the process of revelation this way: “All things whatsoever God in his infinite wisdom has seen fit and proper to reveal to us, while we are dwelling in mortality, in regard to our mortal bodies, are revealed to us in the abstract, and independent of affinity of this mortal tabernacle, but are revealed to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all; and those revelations which will save our spirits will save our bodies” (Dahl and Tate, Encyclopedia of Joseph Smith’s Teachings, 355).
2 I saw the transcendent beauty of the gate through which the heirs of that kingdom will enter, which was like unto circling flames of fire;
3 Also the blazing throne of God, whereon was seated the Father and the Son.
verse 3 “whereon was seated the Father and the Son” Again the Prophet was privileged to see God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. He had previously seen them in the Sacred Grove during the First Vision (see JS-H 1:15-20), at the Morley farm when the office of high priest was introduced (see D&C 52), at the John Johnson home in Hiram, Ohio (see D&C 76), and at the Whitney store in Kirtland about the time when the keys of the First Presidency were granted to his counselors (see D&C 90).
4 I saw the beautiful streets of that kingdom, which had the appearance of being paved with gold.
verses 2-4 “I saw the transcendent beauty” These verses describe the physical nature of the celestial kingdom. Even the gate has transcendent beauty, and the streets appear to be paved with gold. The blazing throne of God and his Son relects the glory of these two exalted beings. It is a physical place with physical beings living within it. Note the difficulty the Prophet has in describing a celestial place with telestial language. He had to use comparative language (“like unto circling flames of fire”) to describe what he saw.
5 I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;
verse 5 “I saw . . . my father and my mother” It is interesting and intriguing to note that some of those whom he saw in the celestial kingdom (for example, Joseph’s father and mother) were not yet deceased, and his father was even with him in the room when he received this revelation! Thus, the Prophet saw the future destiny of his parents and that they would eventually be in the celestial kingdom with God.
“Alvin” Alvin Smith was close to his younger brother Joseph. Alvin had been supportive when Joseph announced to the family that he had seen the Father and the Son and, later the angel Moroni. Alvin died November 19, 1823, at the age of twenty-five. His death was very difficult for Joseph, for he relied on the wisdom and support of his older brother and loved him deeply. Since Joseph did not understand as yet the concepts of salvation and exaltation, he was perplexed when he saw his brother Alvin in the celestial kingdom, for Alvin had died before the Church was fully organized; before the keys of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods were restored; and before anyone could be baptized into the Church. Joseph had learned by revelation that baptism was the gate to the celestial kingdom, yet he saw Alvin there.
6 And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.
verse 6 The Prophet wondered how Alvin, who had not been baptized, could nevertheless be in the celestial kingdom. The answer is given in the next three verses.
Two and one-half months after this revelation was given, the keys of the work for the dead were restored to the earth so that baptisms for the dead could eventually be performed for the faithful, including Alvin, who have departed this earth without that privilege. Hyrum Smith was baptized in behalf of Alvin in the Mississippi River in Nauvoo in 1841 (see Black and Black, Annotated Records of Baptisms, volume 6).
7 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
verse 7 “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry” Here is an important principle. It is clear that the Savior has the ability to judge a man based not only on his overt behaviors and actions, but also on his thoughts and the intents of his heart. The Lord earned this ability by virtue of his atoning sacrifice in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross (Hebrews 2:18; Alma 7:11-12; see also John 5:22). This mortal existence provides the opportunity for most people to adequately demonstrate who they really are in their “heart of hearts” relative to gospel law. However, some lives are cut short or for other reasons they miss the opportunity of being exposed to gospel principles. For these the Lord can and will judged them based on the intents of their hearts—what they would have thought and how they would have behaved had they the opportunity to learn principles of the gospel. In other words, each individual will ultimately be judged and assigned a degree of glory based on who they really are. Those who would have earned a celestial reward will be granted their exaltation. Conversely, those who would have received a lesser reward will be accordingly blessed.
8 Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
verse 8 The antecedent of “it” in this verse is a knowledge of the gospel adequate to allow a man to be judged based on his thoughts and actions relative to that gospel.
9 For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.
verse 9 “according to the desire of their hearts” Some have wondered if this verse does not contain a “loophole” in the plan of salvation. A loophole is defined as a means of escape or evasion; especially a means or opportunity of evading a law or contract. Does this verse suggest that any individual may live pretty much as he or she pleases and then, when the time arrives for them to be judged by the Lord, state clearly their desire to be exalted? Another verse of scripture which makes the same suggestion is Alma 29:4: “I ought not to harrow up in my desires, the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea, I know that he allotteth unto men, yea, decreeth unto them decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction.”
Have we discovered a loophole in the plan of salvation? We have not. They key here is the meaning of “desire of their hearts” and “their wills.” These expressions refer to who a man really is and not merely what he is willing to say. We are judged by an all-knowing Lord based on who we have become, or who we would have become had we had adequate exposure to the law of the gospel. The Savior knows us perfectly and can render this judgment without a word’s being spoken. When the Lord judges an individual according to “his heart,” he judges based upon what that individual truly is. There can be no pretense, no facades, no ulterior motives, no hypocrisy. The Lord’s sees through all of that. Nothing can be hidden from him.
10 And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.
verse 10 Taken as an isolated verse, out of context of section 137, this verse has caused some confusion. We should not try to interpret verse 10 without placing it in the context of verses 6 through 9. Taken in its proper context, this verse teaches that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability who would have received the gospel had they been allowed to tarry are saved in the celestial kingdom. Each child who dies before age eight years will be judged fairly by an all-knowing Lord who knows them individually and perfectly and loves them beyond understanding. Some will be exalted, and others will be rewarded lesser degrees of glory—according to the “desires of their hearts” (see the commentary for verse 9). In the Lord’s wisdom, each of us will be placed eternally where we are comfortable—where we belong (Mormon 9:3-4).
Brief Historical Setting
The temple dedicatory service itself on March 27, 1836, lasted seven hours, and we have accounts of remarkable spiritual manifestations that occurred during that convocation. Sidney Rigdon conducted, and Joseph read the dedicatory prayer which had been revealed to him the previous day [D&C 109 -Kirtland Temple Dedicatory Prayer].
- Michael J. Preece