One of the unique features of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the construction of buildings known as temples. Since no other church builds such structures it is only natural that most people are curious about them. When we add to this that only certain, select people are allowed inside these buildings it makes others even more curious.
To a Latter-day Saint a temple is literally the "house of the Lord." That is, they believe temples are a place where God can either come and actually dwell among His people here on earth as He did in the days of Moses or where God's presence resides. As the Lord told Solomon after he built his temple, "I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually." (1 Kings 9:3).
However, nearly no other Christian faith holds such a belief. To them, the need for temples was done away with after the death of Jesus. Furthermore, quoting the scripture that says "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20) most Christians believe that any place where they gather together to worship Christ is a house of the Lord. When we consider that God loves everyone and invites all to come unto Christ most people can't understand why the LDS Church places restrictions on who can and cannot enter their temples to worship God.
The reason for this confusion is because the purpose of temples has been lost over the centuries. In fact, by the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem even the Jews had lost sight of why God had commanded them to build a house to His name. Although they meticulously observed the temple rituals they didn't understand the reason for them. The apostle Paul explained that the law of Moses was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24), and the way the temple did that was by having the people of Israel perform specific ordinances that symbolically represented Christ and His atonement for our sins. Therefore, the temple was a place where the children of Israel were symbolically taught to look forward to the time when their Messiah would come and save them from their sins. But, over time, they lost sight of that lesson. Instead of understanding the purposes of the temple ordinances they mindlessly went through the motions without any understanding of what they were doing. As a result of this lack of learning on their part, when their long anticipated and prophesied Messiah did come the Jews neither recognized nor accepted Him.
After the death of Christ the apostles continued attending the temple (Acts 5:21,42; 21:26) and taught that there is a temple in heaven where Christ has entered as our high priest (Revelation 11:19; Hebrews 4:14). Moses was told that the temple he was instructed to build was patterned after that which is in heaven (Exodus 29:40). And as we study the rituals in the ancient temple we see that they too were patterned after or were a representation of the things that exist in heaven where God lives.
As just stated, before the time of Jesus the ordinances performed in the temple of Moses were designed to help people look forward to the time when Christ would come and shed His blood for the sins of the world. However, after His death there was no more need for the shedding of blood because that event was now past. Therefore, the ordinances of the temple were changed to represent or point to the second coming of Christ and the resurrection. As such, temples are meant to help people look forward and prepare them for the future rather than looking backwards and remembering the past.
The apostles clearly taught these things but that knowledge has been lost over time. However, nearly all Christians disagree with this statement, claiming that there is no evidence to support such an idea, yet vestiges of a Christian temple ceremony can be found throughout Christian history in both art and literature. But because the purpose of temples has been lost, historians today misunderstand the correct interpretation of these historical fragments that show the early Christian temple rituals. Therefore, in order for mankind to properly understand their meaning a key is needed to unlock their interpretation. The Lord Himself has given us that key when He restored His gospel on the earth again through the prophet, Joseph Smith.
To help us better understand the purpose of modern LDS temples it might be helpful if we first take a closer look at the ancient Jewish temples.
The temple that Moses was commanded to build in the wilderness consisted of an outer wall that formed a courtyard. In this courtyard stood a single building (which originally was a large tent) that consisted of two rooms. The first room was known as "the holy place" and the second or innermost room was known as "the most holy place," or "holy of holies." Only a vail or curtain separated these two rooms (Exodus 26:33). The reason why the innermost room was called the most holy place was because this represented the place where God lived. In this room was the ark of the covenant and it was above this ark (which represented the throne of God) that the Lord would appear and speak unto Moses or the High Priest (Lev. 16:2). Thus, the most holy place was considered to be the throne room of God. Once a year the High Priest would pass through the vail and approach God where He lived. There he would offer a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people (Hebrews 9:7). This was symbolic of Christ, our High Priest, who passed through the vail of death and went before the throne of God with His blood that atoned for the sins of the world (Hebrews 9:11-12).
The Jews had their synagogues where they went to worship God each Sabbath day. There they would read the scriptures, discuss its meanings and sing songs of praise to God, yet they did not consider these public houses of worship to be a temple. The House of the Lord was a special, sacred, holy building and what they did there was totally different from what they did at "church."
The temple God instructed Moses to build was for the purpose of performing certain sacred ordinances. An ordinance, by definition, is a ritual or ceremony or act we participate in. In the Catholic church they have seven, what are known as "sacraments." These include: Baptism, Communion, Marriage, Confirmation, Confession, Ordination, and Anointing of the sick. Although the Catholic church designates each of these sacred symbolic ceremonies by the name of "sacraments" they can properly be called "ordinances" as well. Given the fact that the Catholic church dates back to the time of the earliest Christian church, it is clear that the Christian faith has always had "ordinances" as part of its belief system.
The first ordinance that was performed in the temple of Moses was that of the offering of an animal sacrifice. As a person entered into the courtyard of the temple there was a large square altar where the priest stood. A person would bring an animal (usually a lamb) that was without blemish and give it to the priest. The priest would then ceremoniously transfer the person's sins to the animal, then place the animal on the altar and slit its throat, making sure that the animal's blood dripped on the ground. Nearly all Christians understand this to symbolically represent Christ, who was the Lamb of God, who was perfect, without any blemish of sin, who took upon Himself our sins and then shed His blood upon the ground.
Also in the courtyard, near the altar of sacrifice, was a large bowl or laver of water (Exodus 40:7). In the temple of Solomon there were ten such lavers (1 Kings 7:38). The purpose of these lavers was for the priests to wash themselves clean (see Exodus 30:18-20; Exodus 40:7,12). But this was not a full bath meant to clean off the dirt and dust from their body. Rather, this was a ritual meant to cleanse the priests from their sins so when they came before the sacrificial altar their hands were "clean." They also used the water to clean the blood off their hands after killing the animal. As such, this was ritualistic cleansing, or, in other words, an ordinance.
Another ordinance that was performed in the temple was called an anointing. The Lord instructed Moses, "And thou shall bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and wash them with water. 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." (Exodus 40:12-13). "Then shalt thou take the anointing oil, and pour it upon his head, and anoint him." (Exodus 29:7)
There were also other ordinances that were performed in the holy place and, as we have already discussed, there was an ordinance performed once a year in the most holy place. What we see then is that the ancient temple was not a place where people went to worship God and sing praises to Him or be instructed in the scriptures. Rather, the temple was the place where certain sacred ordinances were to be performed. Therefore, what went on in the temple was very different in purpose and content than what happened in the regular houses of worship.
Even in the days before the time of Jesus, all people were allowed to enter a Jewish synagogue but this was not true of the temple. Only certain, specified people were allowed to enter its sacred areas and they had to belong to the Jewish faith. More than that, the Philistines, Egyptians, Chaldaeans, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, and all other nationalities were strictly forbidden from even touching the outer wall of the temple courtyard. So strict was this law that by the time of Jesus a Gentile could be put to death on the spot for such a violation.
The reason why Gentiles couldn't enter the temple was because they didn't believe in Jehovah. And if they didn't believe in the Israelite God then the ordinances performed in the temple would have had no meaning to them. Therefore, there would have been no purpose to them entering the temple. Furthermore, the Lord required obedience to His commandments. A person who entered the temple with no intention of obeying the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would have made a mockery of participating in these ordinances.
In fact, the Jews themselves were severely rebuked by the Lord for just such a mockery. In the days of Isaiah the Lord told the nation of Judah, "Look what you have done to the faithful city of Jerusalem. It used to be full of righteousness but now it has become a city of full of harlots and murderers. Your kings and princes are all rebellious and have become companions with thieves. So what good are your sacrifices that you offer up to me in my holy house? I tell you they mean nothing to me any more. I am disgusted with your burnt offerings and I no longer take delight in the blood of your sacrificial animals. I am tired of your vain and meaningless worship. The burning of your incense is an abomination to me. The keeping of the Sabbaths and the other holy days I can no longer stomach. Even your solemn assemblies I consider to be full of wickedness. I hate your appointed feasts and I no longer want to trouble myself with them because I am weary of the way you keep them. When you spread forth your hands to cry unto me I will close my eyes and not see you. When you pray to me I will close my ears and not hear you.
"But, if you will be obedient to my commandments and do that which is right before me then shall you prosper. Therefore, wash yourselves. Make yourselves clean before me. Put away the evil that you do before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do well. Seek to judge righteously" (see Isaiah 1:11-23).
What the Lord requires of those who enter His holy House is to be obedient to His ways, and this goes as much for the Jews as it does the Gentiles. Therefore, performing the ordinances of the temple is a mockery to God if performed by those who are not willing to be obedient to Him. That is why people had to belong to the Jewish faith in order to go inside their temple.
But the restrictions didn't stop there. Even among the faithful followers of God, only Israelite men were allowed into the temple courtyard. In the days of King Herod, they erected a second courtyard just outside the temple entrance where Israelite women were permitted, but they were forbidden to enter the actual temple courtyard itself. However, Israelite men were not permitted beyond the sacrificial altar. Only a priest was permitted to go inside the temple itself but they were only allowed to enter the first room, known as the holy place. Only one person - the High Priest - was ever allowed into the second room and this he could do only once a year. So what we see is that from the beginning God has always defined who can enter His house and who can go where once inside of it.
It may be argued that this was true before the time of Jesus but after His death and resurrection the gospel was then preached to all nations. If that is the case, it is argued, "Why can't all people who believe in Christ enter an LDS temple?" The answer is that all people everywhere can go inside any one of our temples because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not deny anyone from entering their temples. The only thing they ask is that all people enter in by the front door. If someone were to climb up on the roof and enter through the chimney, or if they tunneled under the ground and came up through the floor, or if they knocked a hole in the wall and climbed inside then they would be an intruder rather than an invited guest.
The front door that leads to the temple is baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Such a baptism signifies that a person is not only willing to take upon themselves the name of Christ but also be obedient to His commandments as taught by the LDS Church. Someone who is not willing to do that is not a believer in the things that happen inside an LDS temple. Therefore, participating in the ordinances of the temple would be meaningless to them and would make a mockery of those ceremonies. Since the scriptures tell us that God is not to be mocked (see Galatians 6:7) then such people are actually heaping condemnation upon themselves.
But there is another reason why we must first be baptized before entering the temple.
Imagine a child who is outside playing in the mud. Their hands, feet, and clothing would all become dirty. If the parent were to call the child to come into the house, they would not be permitted to enter until they first had been cleaned. They would need to take off their dirty shoes and clothes, and have their hands and face washed. And the reason why a parent would subject their child to such a cleaning is because the parent wouldn't want their home soiled by the dirt their children would track into the house.
In the same way, our Father in heaven invites all His children to come visit Him in His House. The only thing He asks is for us is to become clean first so we don't pollute and sully it by our presence. Baptism is the way God has of washing away the filth and dirt we've picked up from playing in the mud of the world. In fact, it is the only way that God has of cleaning us from our sins. Those who don't agree to being baptized by God's authorized servants are not clean enough to enter God's holy House. Therefore, all people can go to an LDS temple as long as they are willing to become clean through baptism.
But once a person has entered into this front door they must then walk down a corridor before coming to the actual temple itself. This corridor is a one-year waiting period where the Lord watches to see if we will walk according to the promises we've made at our baptism. It's an easy thing for a person to be baptized but only those who have kept their sacred promise to be obedient to God's commandments are truly clean. It is in this way that God makes sure we are worthy to enter His House.
Since only a relatively few people are willing to enter the temple through this front door, only a relatively few people actually know for themselves what happens inside of an LDS temple. Some of those who have never been inside one have offered all sorts of speculative explanations and have created a lot of misunderstanding on this subject, therefore, let's take a closer look at what actually happens inside an LDS temple.
As we have already seen, temples are different from houses of worship in that we go there to perform certain sacred "ordinances" or ceremonies. More than that, these ceremonies are symbolic in nature and are meant to help up look forward to and prepare us for a future event. Since Christ's death has already happened in the past there are no animal sacrifices performed in LDS temples.
The first ordinance performed there is called a "washing." This is similar to that performed by the ancient priests in the temple of Moses. In the LDS temple this ceremony is meant to symbolically wash us clean from the "blood" and sins of the world in which we currently find ourselves. (In the scriptures "blood" is symbolic of what carries our sins but it is not the purpose of this article to go into the details of that symbolism.) But this washing is different from being baptized. Baptism cleanses us from our past sins while the ordinance of washing is to remind us to remain clean from the sins of our generation for the rest of our life. Being in the temple is symbolic of being in the presence of the Lord, so our washing is to remind us to always remain clean so we will be worthy to actually live in the presence of Christ when He comes again. This is the same message that the parable of the ten virgins teaches (Matthew 25:1-13).
The next ordinance is called an "anointing." As we saw earlier, Aaron and his sons were anointed before they could minister unto the Lord. This anointing was for the purpose of sanctifying them and making them holy. In other words, it wasn't enough just to have them ceremoniously washed, but they needed to be anointed as well. And this was done with oil that was specifically consecrated for this purpose (see Exodus 30:25-30).
When someone is "anointed" it also implies they have been set apart from the average person to perform a special work. For example, most kings are anointed, or set apart, to become the king. When the Israelites wanted a king to rule over them the Lord sent His prophet, Samuel, to a young man name Saul and anointed him to become the King of Israel (1 Samuel 15:1). However, at the time he was anointed, a crown was not placed on his head where people then bowed down and honored him as their nation's leader. Instead, he was anointed only to become such a king at a later time.
The same was true of David. He was just a young boy when Samuel anointed him to become the king of Israel but Saul was still the king at that time. Yet, when Saul died, David became the king because he had previously been anointed to become such (see 1 Samuel 16:12-14; 2 Samuel 2:4). However, it should be noted that because Saul did not walk in the ways of the Lord after he became king, the Lord declared that it was "as though he had not been anointed with oil." (2 Samuel 1:21). In other words, he lost his right to be king and his anointing became invalid. As a result, the Lord removed him from that position because of his lack of obedience.
The ordinance of anointing in the LDS temple has the same meaning. We are being sanctified and set apart for a future event when we shall be made "unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:10; 1:6). But this anointing is conditional upon our faithfulness to God. Just as Saul lost his anointed or set apart status because of his lack of obedience, so we too can likewise lose our set apart status that God grants us when we are anointed in His House.
The next ordinance is called the endowment. To "endow" someone is to give them something of worth. For example, when talking about people who are gifted with talents we often say they have been "endowed" with these gifts. In the insurance industry there is a policy called an endowment. This is where a person pays into the policy for a certain number of years and then, at a specified time, the policy "endows" or pays back the person a certain specified amount of money.
In the temple endowment ceremony people are endowed with knowledge, and knowledge properly applied is power. Thus, when people properly apply the knowledge they receive in the endowment ceremony they are also endowed with power. The endowment is a course of instruction that tells us who we are and where we came from, why we are here, what we need to do, where we are going, and what awaits us there.
As part of that instruction, people are asked to make certain commitments called covenants. For example, one covenant people make in the temple is to have no sexual relationship with anyone except to their lawfully wedded spouse. We could call this promise the law of chastity. We also promise to be obedient to all that God commands us to do. We could rightly call this promise the law of obedience. We further promise that we will be dedicated to God to the point that we would be willing to give up our life if that is required of us or to sacrifice our valuable time, or our talents, or our material possessions (such as paying tithing) for the purpose of helping to build up the kingdom of God on earth in preparation for the second coming of Christ. We could call this the law of dedication or the law of sacrifice.
As with an endowment insurance policy, the purpose of the temple endowment is to endow us at a future time with power and knowledge after we have paid into the policy by remaining faithful to the covenants we make in the House of the Lord. But these are the same promises a person makes when they are baptized. Then why do we need to make them again in the temple, especially since we had to faithfully keep them for a full year or more before being allowed to enter the temple?
Perhaps we can answer this question by way of an illustration. Most parents give their children an allowance. In most cases this is money given once a week only if the child has done certain chores. Let's say there is a seven year old child who gets an allowance of five dollars a week, but for that they must keep their room reasonably clean and they can't whine or be rebellious when asked to do something by the parent. If, after the end of a week this child has meet these conditions then they are given the full five dollars. Otherwise they either get nothing or receive a reduced amount of money.
Let's say that one week the child in our example sees a bicycle they want to buy but it costs a hundred and thirty dollars. With a five dollar a week allowance it will take the child twenty-six weeks to save up that much money if they never spend a penny of their allowance. Not wanting to wait that long a child might ask their parents to have their allowance increased. But for that to happen the child would have to take on added responsibilities. In other words, the more responsibility the child is willing to assume the more money they will receive in their allowance.
Our Father in heaven does the same thing with His children except instead of calling what He gives us an allowance we call them blessings. God blesses all people and everyone has access to the Spirit of God for help and guidance, but those who are baptized by His authorized representatives are entitled to the gift of the Holy Ghost. In other words, those who are willing to take upon themselves the responsibility of being called by the name of Christ and agree to obey His commandments get additional blessings that others aren't entitled to.
In the temple people willingly make a more solemn commitment to live the commandments of God than they have before and they do this by covenant before Him in His house. Baptism is like giving your personal word to obey God but making the same promise in the temple is like doing so before a judge in a court of law with your hand on the Bible. Those who are willing to make that kind of a binding commitment to God are therefore entitled to a greater allowance of heavenly blessings from God than those who are not willing to make such a pledge of dedication.
One of those additional blessings God promises those who keep their promise includes sealing couples together as husbands and wives, not just for this time on earth but for all eternity. It also includes having children sealed to their parents so they can remain as a family unit forever. Therefore, the ordinance of sealing is yet another one of the ceremonies performed in the temple.
But what about all of those who have died without ever having had the opportunity to enter the temple through the door of baptism let alone being able to participate in all the ordinances of the temple? Are only the living entitled to these greater eternal blessings? Because God is no respecter of persons and loves all of His children equally, He has made provisions for this situation. Therefore, temples are also places where work for the dead can be performed.
To some this may sound almost ghoulish and might conjure up images of dead people being taken from their grave and having things done to their bones, but that is not what happens in the temple. Let's say a man named David Smith has a great grandfather by the name of Tom Smith who has passed away years ago. David would go to the temple and pretend to be Tom. For example, David would go to someone at the baptismal font in the temple and, in effect say, "My name is Tom Smith. I am deceased and I wish to be baptized." David would then be baptized as if he were Tom Smith. Then David would participate in all the other ordinances as though he were Tom Smith. The word used when someone officially stands in or substitutes themselves for someone else is called a "proxy." When it comes time to seal Tom Smith to his wife, David will serve as a proxy for Tom and a woman will stand in as a proxy for Tom's wife. The term that is used to describe this process is called "vicarious work for the dead."
While some people may question whether God would consider such a practice to be valid, as Christians we believe that this is exactly what Christ did for each of us. He stood as our proxy by taking upon Him our sins and suffered our punishment so we could be saved from enduring that terrible fate ourselves. And by paying the penalty for our sins He was able to cleanse us as though we had never sinned thereby allowing us to pass from death to eternal life into the presence of God. Since that is something we couldn't do for ourselves Christ did it for us. Thus, it is through the vicarious work of Christ that we are saved into the Kingdom of God.
As Christians, we believe that at death when our mortal bodies are laid in the grave our spirit lives on. However most Christians believe that our spirit goes directly either to heaven or hell. But if that is true, what about the millions and millions of people who lived and died without ever having heard the gospel? Are they to be sent to hell forever simply because no one ever taught them how to be saved?
The apostle Peter taught that the gospel is being preached to the dead because they must be judge by the same standard as we the living (I Peter 4:6). But if the dead do accept the gospel when it is preached to them, how can they be baptized or receive any of the other saving ordinances seeing that they are spirits? In the temple we have the opportunity to perform the work of salvation by proxy for them just as Christ performed the work of salvation for us by proxy. In this way, when we perform the temple ordinances in their behalf they have the same opportunity as us to become heirs of salvation.
However, this ordinance has no effect in saving a deceased relative unless that person accepts the gospel when it is preached to them. If they don't accept the message of salvation, then the work done in the temple for them has been in vain. Since we don't know which deceased relative of ours has accepted or rejected the gospel when it is preached to them, we do the work for them just in case. But this is no different than what Christ has done for us. He died on the cross for everyone's sins, even those who will never accept Him as their savior.
But it isn't enough just to know the names of our dead relatives. We also need to know who they were married to, who their children were, and who their siblings were so they too can all be sealed together forever as a family unit. The process by which we learn about these people is called genealogy. Therefore, Latter-day Saints seek to find out about their deceased relatives by doing genealogy work and then making sure their ancestors have the same opportunity we do to participate in the temple ordinances. By allowing them to make the solemn commitments of the temple they can then have the same blessings available to them as are available to us.
Just like the temple of Moses was meant to teach the people of his day to look forward to and prepare themselves for the first coming of Christ, so likewise the modern-day temples are meant to teach people of our day to look forward to and prepare themselves for the second coming of Christ. That's why we build temples.