What is a Mormon Temple? It is a place of worship, a place of covenants, a place of prayer, a place of revelation, a place of salvation, a holy place where God dwells upon earth.
However, for some the temple can seem like a place of mystery, especially to those who go there for the first time. Filled with great expectation of experiencing something wonderful and heavenly, there are some who leave feeling bewildered, and confused because they experienced something very different than what they thought it would be like. In their mind's eye they might have pictured something more glorious, something with a greater spiritual impact, something that would help them become more Christ-like but after going through all the ceremonies, there are some who leave feeling a little perplexed and questioning their temple experience.
In many cases the reason for this comes from the way we prepare people to receive their endowments. When we repeatedly emphasize how holy the temple is and continually talk about the wonderful feelings we get from going there, it's not surprising that people's expectations are going to be very high. Couple this with the importance we place on living worthily to obtain a temple recommend, plus the secrecy which seems to surround the temple ceremonies, and the chances for excessive expectations increases dramatically. When we add to this the fact that what happens in LDS temples is very different from what we do anywhere else in the church, it's no wonder that newcomers can sometimes easily feel a little confused and perhaps disappointed when their first experience is over but that's because they don't understand or appreciate what the temple is really all about.
Unfortunately, there are some who go to the temple regularly who don't always appreciate what is happening. They may go because it's what LDS people are suppose to do, or because of the peaceful feeling they enjoy inside it's walls, or just to do genealogy work but when they leave, they have no more understanding of what they've experienced than a naive first-timer.
The key to understanding what happens in the temple is to realize that all of the ceremonies performed there are a set of symbolic rituals and a symbol, by definition, is something that represents something else. In other words, all symbolic rituals are primarily meant to convey a hidden meaning, therefore, when we go through the temple ceremonies we constantly need to ask ourselves, "What is the meaning of this? What am I suppose to understand by that? What is the significance of this or that?"
What confuses some people is that we've come to think of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a simple and straight forward way, rather than it being a filled with synmbols containing hidden meanings. Thus, when we encounter the temple ceremonies, the natural inclination is to take what is said and done at face value, in a literally way which is why some can become confused with it. However, all through the scriptures, both ancient and modern, we find countless examples of where God uses symbolism to teach great truths to man but without understanding the use of symbols, the teachings of the gospel can appear as simple stories, strange fables, or mysterious statements.
Take, for example, the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and others. To some, they are just that - stories. To others, they see a much greater meaning, on many different levels. Consider the story of the Lord commanding Abraham to offer up Isaac as a blood sacrifice. On the surface, this would seem to be a simple story. On a deeper level, it shows what great faith Abraham had. On a different level we can gain insight of how to be faithful ourselves. But on a symbolic level, it illustrates how God, the Father would someday sacrifice His own Son. In fact, it's been said that Christ was crucified on the same mountain that Abraham offered up Isaac, thereby intensifying the symbolism.
Another example: In Genesis we read that Able and Cain offered up sacrifices unto the Lord. To some this is just another story. But an inquiring mind will ask, "What was the purpose of them doing this? What does God need with a butchered animal?" In reality, nothing! Thus, offering a slain lamb upon an altar is a symbolic ritual. The act of carrying out that sacrifice represents something different than what is actually happening. The inquiring mind would ask, "What is the significance of altars, and why are they used rather than some other type of table? What is the meaning of slaying an animal? What is the significance of the spilled blood?"
Another example is the feast of the Passover which relates to how God freed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. This is a ritual meant to symbolize and bring to remembrance how the angel of death passed over those who had smeared the blood of a lamb on their door posts. For Christians, the Passover also symbolizes how the angel of death will pass over us because of our acceptance of the blood of Christ, who was the lamb slain for our sins. However, in our ritual of remembrance, rather than take the emblems included in the Passover, we take the sacramental bread and water, which represents (or symbolizes) the body and blood of Christ.
To those who don't understand these symbols, it would appear as though we are merely eating food. From their perceptive, they would question the value of us taking so little of it, and would no doubt find our ritual somewhat strange. And that's exactly what happens to people who don't understand the purpose of the temple ceremonies.
Baptism is a ceremony. To some all it means is getting wet. But the apostle Paul explained, "Know ye not that so many of us were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection" (Romans 6:3-5). Thus, baptism symbolizes that, just as Christ died, was buried and rose again, we too will die, be buried and then be resurrected with the same glory that Christ had if we "walk in newness of life.".
But that isn't the only symbolism of baptism. When we were born, we came forth out of water into this new life as a pure and innocent baby. In a similar manner, when we are baptized, we also come forth out of water into a new life, pure and innocent, thereby figuratively and literately being "born again". It also represents having our sins washed away (Act 22:16) and it also signifies that we bury our old habits, and come forth promising to walk in a new lifestyle (Colossians 3:9).
Perhaps the greatest example of using symbolism to teach spiritual truths was given by Jesus. We often talk about His parables as being a great teaching method, yet parables are purely symbolic in nature. They are make-believe stories that represent something other than what is being directly stated. For example, the story of the prodigal son never actually happened, but it represented (or symbolized) how God, the Father receives those who have wandered away in sin yet repent and come back to Him. There never was a Samaritan who helped a wounded man as the Savior said, but Jesus used this fictional tale to show, through symbolism, who is our neighbor and how we should treat one another.
In fact, at the start of many of His parables Jesus would say, "And the kingdom of heaven is like..." and then He would tell a story which represented a principle of heaven. However, the people and events in the story were not the real focus, but were used to symbolize something else. For example, on one particular day Jesus, sitting by the sea side, told the gathered multitude the parable of the sower. He talked about seed being sown, some which fell on rocky ground and some which fell on fertile ground. Then he told how the seed grew and how some plants were choked by the weeds while others weren't.
The seed symbolized the word of God. The different types of soil symbolized the various ways in which people accept the gospel. The weeds symbolized the cares of the world that caused the weak to turn away from God. But without this understanding, the parable is only a strange story that has no meaning. In fact, when Jesus first told this parable, that's exactly how people reacted to it.
Later, after the multitudes had gone, "the disciples came and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables? He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given... Therefore speak I to them in parables; because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand...But blessed are your eyes for they see: and your ears for they hear" (Matthew 13:10,11,13,16). And it was at that point that Jesus then gave them the meaning of the parable.
When we perform the temple ceremonies, there are some today who, seeing, see not, and, hearing, hear not, neither do they understand the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.
To gain a better appreciation of what a temple is, we need to take a closer look at the temple which God commanded the Israelites to build. Even today the Jewish people still make a clear distinction between their synagogues and the Temple. Their synagogues are places of worship and learning, but the Temple is the House of God. It is different from all other buildings. It is holier, more sacred, and more revered than anything else in their life. And what went on inside the temple was very different from anything they did outside it's walls.
The first recorded instance of a temple is the one which the Lord instructed Moses to build in the wilderness. And why did God command him to build it? The Lord explained, "I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God" (Exodus 29:45). This was His house. It was the tent in which He would live while Israel wandered in the desert. Therefore, since it was to be His dwelling place, He commanded that it be built in a very specific manner. After explaining to Moses the design and dimensions of the tent, known as the tabernacle of the congregation, the Lord then told him to build numerous items for use inside the temple. Among them was an altar which had four horns on it, to be used for burnt offering, (Exodus 27:1-2). There was also another altar on which to burn incense (Exodus 30:1). There was a laver of brass for washing both the hands and the feet (Exodus 30:18). There was the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:10) covered with the mercy seat (25:17). There was a table with dishes, spoons, and bowls, to be placed on it along with the shewbread, and there was a specifically shaped candlestick (25:23,29,31).
Within the walls of the tabernacle was a curtain, or veil which divided the tent into two parts. The first part was known as the holy place, where the table, spoons, bowls and candlestick were to be placed. On the other side of the veil, which was known as the most holy place, or holy of holies, was placed the ark of the covenant (Exodus 26:34-5).
Aaron and his sons were anointed to be the high priests of the tabernacle and were commissioned to perform many different rituals which the Lord explained in very exacting detail. In addition to these rituals, the priests, and Aaron especially, were required to wear several layers of specifically designed clothing while performing their duties. Considering that they were in the hot desert, it would seem rather ridiculous for these men to wear all that the Lord required of them if there wasn't some reason for it.
To the casual observer, all of these things associated with the tabernacle would seem strange and meaningless, while the rituals themselves would appear very bizarre. But as we study the scriptures, we begin to see that everything the Lord commanded Moses, from the construction and furnishing of this extravagant tent to the many different ordinances performed in it, were meant to represent or symbolize something of a spiritual nature.
Consider this. In the 131st section of the Doctrine and Covenant the Lord told Joseph Smith, "In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees. And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood" (verses 1,2). The tabernacle was the house of God. As such, it symbolized the celestial kingdom, because that is where God lives. Like the celestial kingdom, the tabernacle of the congregation had three parts: the outer courtyard, the holy place, and the most holy place. God not only lives in the celestial kingdom, but He lives in the highest, or most holy part of that kingdom.
Through modern revelation, we know that the highest level of the celestial kingdom is known as exaltation, and the main purpose of modern-day temples is for preparing us to enter into exaltation. In the ancient temple there was a veil through which one must pass in order to enter into the most holy, or highest glory of the Lord's house. To the unthinking mind, they only see the veil as a piece of cloth, while the inquiring mind asks, "Does the veil represent something that separates the highest degree of the celestial kingdom from the lower two through which we must pass to gain access to exaltation?"
There are those who argue that Christ's atonement did away with the need for temples. They claim that the tearing of the veil in the temple at the time of His death is symbolic of how we now have free access to God, thereby eliminating the need to perform any more temple ordinances. This idea is based on their understanding of Galatians 3:24-25, and Hebrews 9:11-14. However, the problem with symbols is that unless their meaning is clearly given, they either remain a mystery or we run the risk of coming to a false conclusion. It must be kept in mind that unless such explanations are supported by inspired men of God, it is only someone's uninspired opinion of what they think the scriptures teach.
Rather than the torn veil symbolizing the end to temple ordinances, there is another way to look at this. In the ancient temple, only the high priest was permitted to enter through the veil once a year to offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people. He represented Christ who is our high priest, who not only would someday give Himself as a sacrifice for our sins, but would also go to the throne of God and intercede for us. Therefore, once the infinite atonement was made, the veil was torn open, symbolizing that now all people may enter into the most holy place where God dwells. In effect, it symbolizes that Jesus has opened the door to exaltation for us. Notice that the temple itself wasn't destroyed when the veil ripped in two. Rather than it signifying the elimination of the temple ceremonies, the tearing of the veil represents the new condition of the temple. Since our spiritual situation has now changed because of Christ's atoning death, the temple ritual must also be changed to reflect the New Covenant we are now under.
Regardless of what denomination we belong to, all Christians have already made a change to one of the most important ancient temple rituals. Instead of performing animal sacrifices, we have substituted this ordinance with the ceremony of taking the sacrament. Why then should it seem so strange that the other temple ordinances wouldn't also change their symbolism to reflect our new, redeemed condition? Rather than having one person pass through the veil once each year, it would make sense for the symbolism to reflect how that many people can now enter into the highest realm of the celestial kingdom because of Christ's atonement.
But the veil is just one of a great number of symbols which the ancient temple of Israel contained. Consider these: The burning incense symbolized the prayers of the people ascending to God (Psalms 141:2, Revelation 8:3-4). The front of the temple faced eastward (Numbers 3:38,23). The sun rises in the east, where its light changes darkness into day. The temple signifies how God gives light and knowledge to man that illuminates the darkness of our mind. When Israel camped, each tribe was given a specific location on one of the four sides of the temple, thereby placing the temple in the center of their encampment (Numbers 2:17). This not only symbolized that God was in their midst, but that He was to be the central figure in their life. Also, the front opening of every tent was to face the temple, representing that we should continually look toward God as we journey through life. And these are just a few of the many things which the temple symbolizes.
However, the point of knowing this is not to argue about what the symbols mean, but to make us aware that this is how God has always designed His house. Therefore, when we go to the House of the Lord, we need to come prepared to look for the symbolism and then seek to determine their true meaning through inspiration. If all we do is go through the motions of performing the temple ceremonies, we not only miss much in the way of learning, but we run the risk of thinking that such rituals are foolish and senseless. Once that thought enters our mind, then the groundwork is laid for us to start becoming critical of what is done in the temples. And when that happens we are then, in effect, mocking God. After all, it's His house, and He designed it the way it is, rituals and all.
For those who still feel perplexed by the temple experience, consider these scriptures: "And when they go into the tabernacle of the congregation [the temple], they shall wash with water, that they die not"(exodus 30:20) "to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord" (Leviticus 16:30)
"Then thou shalt take the anointing oil and pour it upon his head and anoint him" (Exodus 29:7). "And thou shalt put upon Aaron the holy garments, and anoint him and sanctify him, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office...for their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations" (Exodus 40:13,15).
"And thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall name" (Isaiah 62:2). "To him that overcometh will I give him a white stone, and in the white stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it" (Revelation 2:17). "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and I will write upon him my new name" (Revelation 3:12).
"And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron and thy brother for glory and for beauty. And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, a broidered coat, a miter [bonnet or hat] and a girdle [sash], and they shall make [these] holy garments for Aaron and his sons, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office. And thou shalt gird them with girdles, and put the bonnets on them" (Exodus28:2,4, 29:9). "And Moses brought Aaron's sons, and put coats upon them, and girded them with girdles, and put bonnets upon them" (Leviticus 8:13). "And it shall come to pass that when they enter in at the gates of the inner court [inside the temple], they shall be clothed with linen garments. They shall have linen bonnets upon their heads, and shall have linen breeches upon their loins. And when they go forth into the outer courts [outside the temple] they shall put off their garments wherein they ministered, and lay them in holy chambers, and they shall put on other garments" (Ezekiel 44:17,18,19).
"And white robes were given unto everyone of them" (Revelation 6:11) "And one of the elders answered and said unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? And whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and made them white with his blood (Revelation 7:13-14).
"To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne... Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life... And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth" (Revelation 3:21, 2:10,5:10).
"Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest" (Hebrews 4:11).
There are those who will look at these scriptures and only see a list of disjointed verses, while there are those who will at least see some sense of order to them. Then there are others who will see a spiritual meaning to these verses, while still others will see a deep, profound message. Temple goers fall into these four categories.
The temple ceremonies are meant to teach us great spiritual truths and bring us closer to Christ. If this doesn't happen to us every time we go there, then our eyes are not seeing and our ears are not hearing. The same can be said of the scriptures. Many people, when they read the inspired words of God, only see the most obvious meanings and have little understanding of certain other verses. On the other hand, there are those who can quote the often used verse and give an hour lecture on its significance. In the same way, there are those who go through the temple ceremonies and get very little from it, understanding only the most obvious symbols, while others continually come away with further light and knowledge about the mysteries of God.
The Lord explained it best when He said, "Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me, but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass, and small means, in many instances, doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls" (Alma 37:6-7).
In an ancient Christian text known as The Gospel of Phillip it explains the reason this way: "Most things in the world, as long as their inner parts are hidden, stand upright and live, [but] if they are revealed they die. This is illustrated by the visible man: as long as his intestines are hidden, the man is alive; when his intestines are exposed and come out of him, the man will die. So also with the tree: while its root is hidden it sprouts and grows. If its root is exposed, the tree dries up."
"Nobody will be able to know when the husband and wife have intercourse with one another except the two of them alone. It is not carnal, but pure. It does not belong to lust.[But,] If a marriage is open to the public, it has become defiled." "For as long as [it] is hidden, it is strong. But if it becomes known, it is dissolved. If it becomes visible it perishes."
The same is true of the temple. The Gospel of Phillip explains that the most holy place of the ancient temple was covered by a veil to keep the things in it secret and hidden from the public. But when the veil is rent by the enemies of God "and the things inside are revealed, this house will be left desolate, or will be destroyed."
That's why we don't discussed in public the sacred things revealed to us in the temple ceremonies. Jesus explained it by simply saying, "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you" (Matthew 7:6)