Sacred Space – Temple themes in the Book of Mormon
One of the Book of Mormon’s main themes is for people to return back into the presence of God. It is filled with stories of people having theophanies (seeing God, often on his throne), or discussing themes found in modern LDS temples: Creation, the Fall of Adam and Eve from God’s presence, Pre-earth existence, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Divine Council, Returning back into God’s Presence, etc. This article will briefly discuss several of these issues, as an in depth look would require a book, or perhaps several volumes to address in any detail.
In the very first chapter of the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 1), we find the man Lehi, who is just a regular Israelite living in the land of Jerusalem walking along the roadside. He heard the words of the prophets of his day (Jeremiah and others) preaching repentance to the people, and these words sunk deeply into him. We are told he prayed fervently to the Lord for his people, when he then has the first of two powerful visions.
And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tremble exceedingly (1 Nephi 1:6).
In this vision, he sees God much the way Moses initially did when he received his prophetic call and mission to rescue Israel from Egypt. We are not told exactly what he learned in this vision, but his next vision gives us greater details.
And it came to pass that he returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen. And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day. And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament. And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read. And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord. And he read, saying: Wo, wo, unto Jerusalem, for I have seen thine abominations! Yea, and many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—that it should be destroyed, and the inhabitants thereof; many should perish by the sword, and many should be carried away captive into Babylon. And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as: Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God Almighty! Thy throne is high in the heavens, and thy power, and goodness, and mercy are over all the inhabitants of the earth; and, because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish! And after this manner was the language of my father in the praising of his God; for his soul did rejoice, and his whole heart was filled, because of the things which he had seen, yea, which the Lord had shown unto him (1 Nephi 1:7-15).
In the very first chapter of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Lehi sees God on his throne. The Divine Council, which in this instance includes Jesus and his 12 apostles, descends to Isaiah and gives him the divine book to read. As with Ezekiel, the apostle John, and others who received divine books to read, this contained the message he as messenger was to give to the people. He became for that moment a part of the Divine Council, receiving his call to go forth as a prophet.
Isaiah in the Book of Mormon
Nephi quotes extensively from Isaiah, using him as a third witness of Christ, along with Nephi and his brother Jacob. Isaiah’s words are very important, because for Nephi, they explain the Abrahamic Covenant in a manner that directly relates to the Nephites, or at least in the way that Nephi interprets and explains the words of Isaiah in the form of a Midrash. Among the first of Isaiah’s words quoted come from chapter 6 (Isaiah 6, see also 2 Nephi 16).
In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim. And one cried unto another, and said: Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I: Wo is unto me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips; and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts. Then flew one of the seraphim unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar; and he laid it upon my mouth, and said: Lo, this has touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said: Here am I; send me (Isaiah 1:1-8, 2 Nephi 16:1-8).
Isaiah found himself inside the Holy of Holies of the Temple, the most sacred spot, where only the high priest was allowed to enter in once a year. He hears the Divine Council of seraphim, high-ranking angels, speaking to one another about the glory of God. Isaiah realizes he has not been purified, and saw God before the smoke filled the temple to obscure Him (the seraphim use the wings (also can be translated “veil” on their heads to cover their eyes). Isaiah knows he is a dead man for seeing God without first being purified. However, one of the angels grabs a coal from the holy incense fire and cleanses Isaiah with it. Now, not only does Isaiah hear the angels, but God also. He is now a part of the Divine Council. His prophetic calling reflects an earlier event in the Divine Council, as told in the LDS scripture, the Book of Abraham:
Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; and God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers (the Divine Council); for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. and the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me (Abraham 3:22-27).
Here we see the Creation, wherein many of the great spirits were gathered into the Divine Council. Abraham was one of these great angels. God needed to send one to perform an act, in this instance to rescue and save mankind. As with Isaiah, the Lord asked, “whom shall I send?” and sent the Chosen one to earth. Isaiah, in this context, becomes a symbol of Jesus’ foreordained calling as Savior.
We see many things repeated in the visions that include seeing God and/or Christ. Some include seeing God on his throne. Others see God descend to the person. Often there is a book involved, and other important ties to the ancient temple rite.
The Vision of the Tree of Life
Lehi had a vision at night, which LDS today call the Vision of the Tree of Life. Wanting to know what his father had seen, Nephi also prayed to know his father’s vision, and also received one very similar to it, but perhaps more expansive. While similar visions, Lehi’s was focused on his family, while Nephi saw it from the view of a new dynasty going into the future.
Lehi began his vision being led by an angel in the darkness. After a long period of time, Lehi prayed for deliverance, and immediately was brought out of the darkness. In his vision, he saw various things symbolizing general events in the world: a great building representing pride, mists of darkness representing those who get lost in the bad things of life, a dangerous river where the wicked often drown, etc. He also spied a path that led to the Tree of Life. As he approached the Tree, he expressed how white and perfect the tree was. Partaking of its fruit brought joy and peace (1 Nephi 8, 10).
As Nephi sought to see his father’s vision, the Holy Spirit leads him to a high mountain. From his lofty perch, Nephi sees the Tree of Life, as a representation of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus as her fruit. In the ancient temple of Solomon, the Tree of Life symbolized the wife of God. She is known as Wisdom and Asherah, among other names. The important thing here is that her fruit is Jesus Christ, the Savior of man. Nephi saw the life of Jesus, his resurrection, and the Lord’s dealings with future generations of his people and of the world. Nephi sees the future Bible and Book of Mormon come forth to mankind, as the holy books involved in his vision. During the revelation, Nephi’s vision blends into the vision of the apostle John in his Revelation.
In the beginning of John’s Revelation, he sees God on his throne with the divine council surrounding Him (Revelation 4). John receives a book, which he swallows, and is told he has a mission to prophesy before “many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings” (Rev 10:10-11). He is guided throughout his vision by angel-guides. They guide him through various disasters and catastrophes that occur on earth, symbolizing the Fall of mankind from God’s grace. Only at the end of his vision, does John sees the Celestial Temple, representing mankind’s return into the Lord’s presence.
The Tree of Life also figures into John’s revelation:
“He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God” (Rev 2:7).
Lehi and Free Agency/Will – 2 Nephi 2
In an important teaching given to his son, Jacob, Lehi discusses key concepts derived from the temple. He discusses the Creation, the Fall of Adam and Eve, the Atonement of Christ (which brings about agency), and Restoration back into the presence of God.
“And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other” (2 Ne 2:15-16).
Here we note the fruit of the Tree of Life in opposition to the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve were allowed to be enticed by both, and so able to decide or act for themselves. In fact, with the two trees came two commandments: To be fruitful and multiply (Tree of Life), and Not to partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve could not keep both commandments at once, as they were innocent in the Garden, and so unable to multiply upon the earth without knowledge. Lehi saw Satan cast out of heaven at the beginning, and he also knew:
“And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given” (2 Ne 2:26)
As noted above, when at the Creation, God asked, “whom shall I send?” Jesus responded, “Here am I, send me.”
“Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise” (2 Ne 2:8).
Alma explains the Pre-mortal Priesthood
In Alma 13, the prophet Alma explained that the priesthood of God, given to man to baptize and perform His great works, was established prior to the Creation.
I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people. And those priests were ordained after the order of his Son, in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption. And this is the manner after which they were ordained—being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared— And thus being called by this holy calling, and ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach his commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest— this high priesthood being after the order of his Son, which order was from the foundation of the world. Thus they become high priests forever, after the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, who is without beginning of days or end of years, who is full of grace, equity, and truth. And thus it is. Therefore they were called after this holy order, and were sanctified, and their garments were washed white through the blood of the Lamb. Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God (Alma 13:1-12).
We find several concepts of the temple. The temple is tightly connected to the priesthood of God, Moses having ordained Aaron and his sons to be the first priests in the Tabernacle. We find that in the premortal existence, many were faithful and were foreordained to receive the priesthood and serve God in this life. In receiving this special calling, their garments are “washed white” in Christ’s blood. For the ancient temple priest, having one’s garments spotless before entering the temple was of primary importance.
Alma’s theophany – Alma 36
Alma the Younger was notorious as a young man, intent with his friends to destroy the church of God. As they went forth, an angel appeared to them, telling them to stop destroying the church, or God would destroy them. Alma collapsed and was in a coma, or perhaps a Near Death Experience, for three days.
He described to his son, Helaman, his experience:
Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments. Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds. And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul (Alma 36:13-16).
So horrible were his pains in this spirit prison or hell, that he wished to be annihilated. Only when he had reached the end of his rope, not knowing of any escape from his torment,
I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! (Alma 36:17-20).
Upon believing in Christ and repenting, he was rescued from hell and brought into paradise. From this vantage point, Alma explains,
“Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there” (Alma 36:22).
As with Lehi, Alma saw God sitting on his throne. He had a theophany. He was again in the presence of the Lord, surrounded by his Divine Council. Interestingly, unlike Lehi and Isaiah, Alma sees the throne room from a distance. He longs to be up close and involved with the Divine Council, but will have to prepare himself more. While cleansed in the blood of Christ, Alma needs time to be sanctified and made holy through the power of the Holy Ghost.
Returning to the Presence of the Lord
3 Nephi 11-28
Throughout the Book of Mormon, we see prophets talk about the land of promise, which the Lord has brought them to. This land of promise is a physical symbol of the spiritual promise of one day dwelling with God in his presence. The Book of Mormon discusses the tragedy of those who are cast out of or destroyed off the land of promise because of iniquity, and how this relates to being destroyed once brought before the judgment bar of God (Alma 11-12, Mormon 9).
We find that all are called to the land of promise, to prepare to enter into the presence of God, both physically and spiritually.
Perhaps the greatest example of this comes in 3 Nephi 11, when the resurrected Lord comes among the Nephites after the wicked are destroyed off the face of the earth. In his teachings, Jesus tells the people that contention is the doctrine of Satan. He explains that the doctrine of Christ is that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one God, and we must become as one people, so we can also be one with the Godhead. In the ensuing chapters, Jesus teaches how faith, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, partaking of the holy supper, and keeping the commandments teach us to be like Christ, so we can be unified with other Christians and with Jesus and God.
The Lord appeared to the brother of Jared. In doing so, we read,
“behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you” (Ether 3:13).
Sacred Spaces, and specifically today, temples, provide the opportunity to return back into God’s presence. The Book of Mormon teaches us by lessons and examples, how that occurs.
I discuss John’s Revelation and his Temple experience more in-depth here: New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 45: “He That Overcometh Shall Inherit All Things” Revelation 1-4
By Gerald Smith