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Receiving the temple endowment should be one of the most sacred experiences in a person’s life. Unfortunately however, the uniqueness of this ordinance can sometimes be perceived as overwhelming and even a bit unusual for some who first experience it. Great care is often given to ensure that a person is worthy, but rarely is much done to help a person understand the ordinance itself. The following is a brief overview of the nature and purpose of the temple endowment as taught in the scriptures and by modern prophets. It is intended to help prepare those who are first entering the temple to understand and enjoy this sacred experience.
The Celestial Room
Perhaps the best place to begin to understand the temple endowment is at the end. The climactic conclusion of the temple endowment is to pass into the celestial room, which is an earthly representation of the heavenly presence of God. The celestial room, including the sealing rooms, is the holiest place on earth and is where we can feel closest to our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. It reminds us that heaven is where we once belonged and where our souls long to return. When a person needs to truly pray and converse with our Heavenly Father to receive direction, guidance, revelation, comfort, or support in their life, there is no better place to go than to the celestial room in the temple. There we feel at home in the presence of our Father in Heaven.
But the presence of God is not something we can just rush into from off the street. We must prepare ourselves to enter. As the scriptures frequently declare, “no unclean thing can dwell . . . in his presence” (Moses 6:57). One of the main purposes of the temple endowment is to teach us how to prepare ourselves to enter the presence of God. In fact, the endowment is a dramatized depiction of our path back to the presence of God. It shows us that through ritual, righteousness, and the redemption of Jesus Christ we can all return to visit God’s presence in this life and dwell in his presence forever in the life to come.
In the Old Testament we read how priests prepared themselves to enter God’s presence anciently. Before they formally entered the temple, a three-step ritual or ordinance was performed to cleanse and make them worthy. “And thou shalt 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” (Ex. 40:12-13). Thus, ancient priests were washed, anointed, and clothed to symbolically prepare themselves to enter the holy presence of God. These same initiatory rites and ordinances are performed in temples today for the same purposes.
Washing with water symbolically cleanses us that we may be worthy and clean to enter God’s presence. The Lord has commanded us to “cleanse your hands and your feet before me, that I may make you clean; that I may testify unto your Father [in heaven] that you are clean from the blood and sins of this wicked generation” (D&C 88:74-75).
Anointing with oil was an ancient way of consecrating or setting apart a person to be a special servant of God such as a prophet, priest, or king (see Anoint, Bible Dictionary). The title Christ or Messiah literally means “the anointed one.” The outpouring of oil was symbolic of the outpouring of power and the Spirit that was to rest upon the anointed servants of the Lord. In the Kirtland temple where these ordinances were first performed in the latter-days, the Lord spoke of the “blessings which shall be poured out upon the heads of my people” (D&C 110:10).
Being clothed with “holy garments” anciently (Ex. 40:13), included not only undergarments but also clothing to be worn on the outside of their priestly robes like aprons and caps (Ex. 39 especially footnotes 2a, 28b, and figure below). This is illustrated in the above image of Moses preparing his brother Aaron to enter the temple.
Together this clothing symbolized the “robes of righteousness” that all must wear to dwell in the presence of God (2 Nephi 9:14). As Moses learned, those who are not clothed in the glory, power, authority, and protection of God cannot withstand his glory and will wither in his presence (Moses 1:1, 11). Thus, before we first enter the presence of God in the temple today, we too must be washed, anointed, and clothed. Only then are we properly cleansed, empowered, and dressed to stand in His glorious presence.
The scriptures also teach of another requirement to be worthy to enter the presence of God: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart” (Psalms 24:3-4). This means that being symbolically washed on the outside (clean hands) is not enough, we must also be worthy on the inside (pure heart). The endowment teaches that this personal purity needed to progress toward the presence of God is achieved by making and keeping sacred covenants to obey celestial laws. President Ezra Taft Benson taught plainly that these laws “include the law of obedience and sacrifice, the law of the gospel, the law of chastity, and the law of consecration” (“A Vision and a Hope for the Youth of Zion,” BYU Devotional April 12, 1977). Because we make solemn covenants to keep these laws in the temple, it is helpful to understand them before we enter. Latter-day prophets have provided clear explanations for these laws.
The law of obedience is “the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 539; see also Elder David A. Bednar, “Heartfelt and Willing Obedience,” BYU-Idaho Devotional, June 27, 2002). The Law of obedience may be summarized as simply the promise that we will obey God and keep his commandments.
The law of sacrifice “is that we are willing to sacrifice all that we have for the truth’s sake—our character and reputation; our honor and applause; our good name among men; our houses, lands, and families: all things, even our very lives if need be” (Elder Bruce R. McConkie, “Obedience, Consecration, and Sacrifice,” General Conference, April 1975).
The law of the gospel begins with the first principles and ordinances of faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost (Articles of Faith 1:4). The law of the gospel is also the term commonly used to refer to the higher law and set of commandments given by Christ in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon to replace the lesser law of Moses (see Matt. 5 and 3 Nephi 12; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, p.237, 252-253).
The law of chastity is “complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage” between husband and wife (Elder David A. Bednar, “We Believe in Being Chaste,” May 2013 Ensign).
The law of consecration is “that one’s time, talents, strength, property, and money are given up to the Lord for the express purpose of building up the kingdom of God and establishing Zion on the earth” (President Ezra Taft Benson, “A Vision and a Hope for the Youth of Zion,” BYU Devotional April 12 1977). This is the final law of heaven and the culminating temple covenant of exaltation. As Elder Bruce C. Hafen has explained, “If we desire ‘all that [the] Father hath,’ God asks all that we have” (“The Atonement: All for All,” General Conference, April 2004). By making and keeping covenants to obey these celestial laws, we progress and advance in righteousness, as depicted in the endowment ceremony, until we are ready to enter the Lord’s presence.
Redemption through Jesus Christ
As important as it is to receive cleansing ordinances and obey God’s laws, none of this would have the power to bring us back into the presence of God without the redemption made available through Jesus Christ. As the prophet Abinadi explained, “Salvation doth not come by the law alone; and were it not for the Atonement, which God himself shall make for the sins and iniquities of his people, that they must unavoidably perish, notwithstanding the law” (Mosiah 13:28). In the end, it is only in and through Jesus Christ that we can ever return to the presence God. Priesthood ordinances in his name and personal obedience to his laws only have power to cleanse us and make us worthy because of his Atonement. The central role of Christ’s atoning sacrifice in bringing us back to the presence of God is one of the chief messages of the temple endowment and is illustrated through a depiction of the story of Adam and Eve. Because this story is also found in the scriptures, it is appropriate to review it in preparation for understanding the temple endowment.
Like all of us, Adam and Eve once lived in the presence of God. This is true both of their pre-earth life where they lived as spirit children of God, as well as their original earth life in the Garden of Eden where they continued to associate with Him face to face. Although they lived with God, they were not like him and could never become like him in the Garden of Eden. This is because they were created “in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery, doing no good, for they knew no sin” (2 Nephi 2:23).
In order to grow and progress, Adam and Eve needed to leave this sheltered condition and gain what the scriptures call “the knowledge of good and evil” (Moses 3:17), which is only obtained through experience with opposition like good and evil, bitter and sweet, joy and pain (2 Nephi 2:11, 15, 23). Gaining this knowledge would make them like God (Moses 4:11, 28), but it would require them to leave his presence. By choosing to fall from God’s presence by partaking of the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve gave up being with God for the ability to become like him.
The choice to fall brought severe spiritual consequences. As the Book of Mormon explains, “Because man became fallen they were cut off from the presence of the Lord” and would have remained cut off from God forever like the devil unless there was an Atonement performed (2 Nephi 9:6-9). To teach Adam and Eve about the sacrifice Jesus Christ would make to bring them back into the presence of God, they were commanded to perform animal sacrifice (Moses 5:5). Apparently, it was from the first animal sacrifice that the Lord made coats of skins for Adam and Eve before they left the Garden of Eden (Moses 4:27; Ensign, Jan. 1981 p.6). Although they would not fully understand the significance of this until later, these coats of skins, or “garments” as the term could be translated (Gen. 3:21 footnote a), signified that they were “covered” by the Lamb of God. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for Atonement literally means “to cover” (see President Russell M. Nelson, “The Atonement,” Ensign, November 1996). In other words, their garments were a constant reminder that through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ their sins would be covered and they could face the challenges of the world with the assurance that they could one day return to the presence of God. Temple garments today hold the same symbolism and significance.
After Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, the Lord placed angels to guard the entrance to the presence of God so that no one unworthy, unauthorized, or unprepared could enter (Moses 4:31). It was the lifetime pursuit of Adam and Eve to return to the presence of God. As their mortal posterity, we inherit the same separation from God and the same desire to return. That is our lifetime pursuit also and the temple endowment shows us the path to accomplish it. As President Brigham Young explained, “Your endowment is to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you . . . to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being able to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your exaltation” (President Brigham Young, Discourses of Brigham Young p. 416).
The path we must walk in the endowment is a path of ritual, righteousness, and redemption through Jesus Christ. That path culminates in the celestial room of the temple which is the earthly representation of our heavenly home. It is our latter-day Eden, the holiest place on earth, where we can return to the presence of our Father in Heaven while still here on earth. May we visit there frequently and prepare to dwell there eternally.