The Old Testament is replete with references to temples. I’m not a scholar and certainly don’t pretend to understand everything about ancient temple worship, but being an active temple-attending member of the LDS church, when I study the Old Testament, I notice a great many temple references and similarities between what they practiced anciently and what has been revealed to our modern prophets today.
At the very least we can surmise that the temple played a central role in their worship. The temple held a position of great importance even in the New Testament times, and our Savior himself was often to be found there. This critical role of the temple is not well understood by religions today, and temples have been largely neglected in worship. What was involved in temple worship and why was it so important? What exactly is a temple for? While I won't discuss every aspect of LDS temple doctrine here (like performing sacred ordinances for the dead), I hope to demonstrate that temple worship is a critical aspect of the Lord's true gospel, as shown by bible history and scripture from the Old Testament primarily.
I’ve already mentioned in an earlier article that where there is no temple, the Lord has often commanded his prophets to come up to the top of a mountain. There are many similarities between the holy mountain, the place sanctified by God and where he chose to come and make contact with his children, and the temples which the children of Israel would later build. The Lord commanded Moses, while speaking to him on the holy mountain, to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt and to the mountain where he would instruct them, give them his law, and even show himself to them (Exodus 19). They were to sanctify themselves and keep themselves clean for three days prior to this great event (Ex.19:10-14).
The children of Israel generally failed to find the courage and the resolve to meet these requirements of the Lord (Ex. 20:18-19). They were afraid of the power and majesty of God, and were not spiritually ready to communicate with him directly. Rather they decided they were satisfied with Moses speaking to God. Some seventy elders of Israel, as well as Moses, Aaron and others went up to the mountain and “saw the God of Israel” (Ex. 24:9-10).
One of the first instructions given to Moses for Israel was to begin working to build the tabernacle (Ex. 25). A significant portion of the rest of the book of Exodus deals with the instructions for the tabernacle, and how Aaron and the priests are to be sanctified and dressed in order to officiate there, and generally what should be done related to worship in the tabernacle. The tabernacle was essentially a large tent, a portable temple that could be packed up and travel with Israel as they journeyed to the promised land - which ended up serving them during their forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
Thus, going back far into history, the Lord has used sacred places, sacred locations, to come and commune with his children on the earth. Once the temple was completed, this sacred place where the Lord would come became the temple - and no longer the mountain. He promised the Israelites:
43 And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and the tabernacle shall be sanctified by my glory.
44 And I will sanctify the tabernacle of the congregation, and the altar: I will sanctify also both Aaron and his sons, to minister to me in the priest's office.
45 And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God.
46 And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the Lord their God.
The ancient tabernacle was arranged into three main areas. There was an outer courtyard area where there was an alter of sacrifice and a large wash basin (laver), then within that the “holy place” where the sacred seven-branched candlestick (menorah), the shewbread and the alter of incense were, and then finally behind the veil, the holiest place or “Holy of Holies” (Ex 25:22). In the courtyard area, all worthy Israelites were allowed. Each succeeding level of the tabernacle increases in holiness and sacredness - and careful preparations were to be made according to the strict instructions, before the priest alone could proceed into the Holy of Holies where the ark of the testimony was kept. The LDS bible dictionary has a very detailed description of the tabernacle structure and the items and ordinances associated with it.
This is all similar and connected in various ways to modern LDS temples. The temple ordinances are a progression, from a lower level or telestial kingdom, to a middle level (terrestrial) and then ultimately to the highest and holiest celestial level. This is representative of the arrangement in heaven, with divisions into three kingdoms. Sacred and symbolic ordinances are performed - different certainly from what ancient Israel performed, but still the central ideas are the same. It’s a process of personal sanctification, of leaving the world and making the deepest personal commitments to God.
Sacred Clothing and Holy Garments
Gen 3:21 Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins and clothed them.
This is an important bible verse for Latter-day saints who have been through the temple. God clothed Adam and Eve in sacred clothing he made himself. There are many apocryphal stories and legends that speak about this sacred garment that God gave to Adam, and how it was passed down to future prophets including Noah, and others after him (Nibley, Temple and Cosmos p. 123-132).
Similarly, Aaron and his sons are dressed in holy garments (or clothing) in preparation to their priestly service in the tabernacle, as commanded and carefully described by the Lord.
And these are the garments which they shall make; a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a broidered coat, a mitre, and a girdle: and they shall make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, and his sons, that he may minister unto me in the priest's office.
The references here are descriptions of robes, a breastplate, a mitre (hat or head covering), the girdle or apron, etc.. These are the holy priesthood robes, and the act of dressing in this sacred clothing helps to prepare the mind for the sacred and spiritual focus that is needed for the rites of the temple. Linen breeches (underwear) are also described (Ex. 28:42). Aaron and his sons are also washed (Ex. 29:4) and annointed (Ex. 29:7) to prepare them for their temple service.
Latter-day Saints, as part of the temple ordinances and rites revealed through modern prophets today, receive holy garments that are worn under the clothes. These garments have certain symbols sewn into the fabric, to remind us of sacred covenants we have taken on in the temple. The garment helps us to remember each day that we have made promises to God, promises to more fully keep his commandments and to live lives of virtue and holiness.
Most are familiar with the biblical account of Solomon the son of David, who built the first temple in Jerusalem. David had wanted to be able to do this, and gathered much of the materials, but it was to be left to Solomon to accomplish it (2 Samuel 7:4-16, LDS Bible Dictionary, “Temple of Solomon”)
The words of Solomon as to his purpose in building the temple:
3 Thou knowest how that David my father could not build an house unto the name of the Lord his God for the wars which were about him on every side, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet.
4 But now the Lord my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor evil occurrent.
5 And, behold, I purpose to build an house unto the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord spake unto David my father, saying, Thy son, whom I will set upon thy throne in thy room, he shall build an house unto my name.
(1 Kings 5:3-5)
And the Lord’s response to his plans:
11 And the word of the Lord came to Solomon, saying,
12 Concerning this house which thou art in building, if thou wilt walk in my statutes, and execute my judgments, and keep all my commandments to walk in them; then will I perform my word with thee, which I spake unto David thy father:
13 And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.
(1 Kings 6:11-13)
The LDS Bible Dictionary has extensive information about the history and design of this temple, as well as the several other temples that were built on this same site in Jerusalem. It was modeled after the tabernacle, though there were some differences in the number and scale of several items. The materials used in its construction were of the highest order. Gold, brass, and cedar were used in abundance, with intricate artistic carvings adding to the beauty. The “brazen sea” or large brass basin for the washing of the priests stood on the backs of twelve oxen, three facing north, three east, three south and three west.
When the temple was completed, and consecrated and dedicated by Solomon, the Lord demonstrated dramatically that he accepted this temple as his holy dwelling by sending fire down from heaven and consuming the sacrifices (2 Chr. 7:1). This great temple of Solomon, famous for it’s treasures and beauty, was the center of religious life for ancient Israel.
The Lord accepted the temple and even appeared to Solomon to bless and instruct him:
1 And it came to pass, when Solomon had finished the building of the house of the Lord, and the king's house, and all Solomon's desire which he was pleased to do,
2 That the Lord appeared to Solomon the second time, as he had appeared unto him at Gibeon.
3 And the Lord said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before me: 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.
4 And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments:
5 Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel.
(1 Kings 9:1-5)
Unfortunately Solomon failed to keep his sacred covenants with the Lord, and later fell into idolatry and sin, losing his promised blessings (1 Kings 11). Over the generations, as the whole nation of Israel fell into apostasy and idolatry, many prophets tried to turn them back to the holy temple. The prophet Habakkuk taught them where the true God was to be found:
18 ¶ What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it; the molten image, and a teacher of lies, that the maker of his work trusteth therein, to make dumb idols?
19 Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach! Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it.
20 But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.
During one particular time of crisis in the land of Judah, when the country was surrounded by threatening armies, the righteous king Jehoshaphat expressed his faith in the Lord and his holy house. He prayed that his people might be preserved from the armies although they were completely outnumbered:
If, when evil cometh upon us, as the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we stand before this house, and in thy presence, (for thy name is in this house,) and cry unto thee in our affliction, then thou wilt hear and help.
(2 Chronicles 20:9)
Because of his great faith, the Lord did hear his prayers and did miraculously protected his people.
In time Israel proved unwilling to keep the commandments of the Lord, and in time were scattered as the Lord had promised. The sacred temple was desecrated, looted, and eventually burned to the ground about 600 BC by Nebuchadnezzar.
At the time of the prophet Haggai, when Jerusalem and Judah were ruled by the Persians and Medes, Israel desired to repent and to be blessed again by the Lord. The people were beginning to rebuild their own houses, but they had not as yet begun to rebuild the house of God. The word of the Lord came through Haggai:
4 Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your cieled houses, and this house lie waste?
5 Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways.
6 Ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put it into a bag with holes.
7 ¶ Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways.
8 Go up to the mountain, and bring wood, and build the house; and I will take pleasure in it, and I will be glorified, saith the Lord.
9 Ye looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when ye brought it home, I did blow upon it. Why? saith the Lord of hosts. Because of mine house that is waste, and ye run every man unto his own house.
He further promised:
The glory of this latter house shall be greater than of the former, saith the Lord of hosts: and in this place will I give peace, saith the Lord of hosts.
Among the Latter-day saints there is a process for gaining admittance to the temple. Just as in ancient Israel, access to the holiest places in the temple was restricted to the priest, access to our modern temples is restricted (one might say to the priests and priestesses). It is different from a church, where all are encouraged to come. Because of the sacredness and holiness of the temple, and because we desire to keep it holy, no “unclean” or sinful thing can be allowed in.
3 Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
While it true that we “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”, there is a certain baseline of personal conduct and character that must be certified before access is granted. Admittance to the holy temple is reserved for those who pass personal temple worthiness interviews with their bishop and stake president (local church leaders). Where past sins may have been committed, the bishop ensures that the repentance process has been fully completed.
Also, although newly baptized converts are certainly worthy and clean, it’s important that all who come to the temple are prepared with enough experience and knowledge to realize the significance and importance of the covenants they will be taking upon themselves. Temple covenants are not to be taken lightly, they are given by God himself and he holds us more accountable after entering into them.
The temple is a goal for the Latter-day Saint, a destination to seek after, and the blessings that come into a persons life for seeking and gaining admittance to the temple are unbounded. Personally, I can bear my own witness that I have felt the very presence of God in a most powerful way while in the temple. I have felt him there in a way I have not felt him outside the temple. The temple is sacred conduit for spiritual access to heaven. It is a place of true holiness. God does commune with man, and more clearly in a temple than anywhere else.
I've covered here the sacred character of temple work, and I think I have established that temple worship was a vital - even critical - aspect of worship among God's people in the Old Testament. The temple features prominently in the New Testament as well, although that is a topic for another day. If the temple was so absolutely essential, a sacred conduit for communion with God, surely we would find holy temples in the Lord's church today? Do not people today need such a sacred place, such a place of peace and spiritual power? I also haven't touched on the many pseudopigraphical and apocryphal works that contain information about the temple and temple ceremonies that correspond to LDS practices (see Nibley's Temple and Cosmos). Temples and temple work is very ancient and goes back before the time of Moses, in fact as far back as Adam.
And lastly, I haven't covered the sacred work for the dead, pointed to by the prophecy of Malachi at the very end of the Old Testament, where he promises:
5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord:
6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
This prophecy was literally fulfilled in 1836 when Elijah, the Old Testament prophet came down from heaven to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the first modern temple, in Kirtland Ohio. He restored the keys of the priesthood sealing power, the power to perform sacred ordinances for both the living and the dead. This leads into the doctrine that marriages and family bonds can last beyond the grave, and also leads to our efforts to perform family history work to identify our ancestors so that sacred ordinances may be performed for them by proxy (as they may not have had the opportunity to be taught or receive the gospel in life).
For further information on LDS temple doctrine and details about the purposes of temples, I encourage you to visit ldschurchtemples.com/articles.