Sacred Space – The Temple Experience in Ancient Jewish/Christian Texts
In previous articles, we’ve discussed sacred spaces and temple experiences from the Bible and Book of Mormon. We will now look at some of ancient texts related to Judaism and/or Christianity that also contain such themes. Please note that none of these are part of the canonized scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and most Mormons have probably never heard of them. It is interesting, however, to read about and see the commonalities of spiritual experiences of the prophets, whether in scripture or non-scriptural literature.
The Ascension of Isaiah
The Ascension of Isaiah is believed to originally have been a Jewish text that was updated by early Christians. It was probably written (in its current form) around 150-200 AD.
The prophet Isaiah details a vision he had to King Hezekiah and others. Beginning in chapter 7, the text discusses Isaiah’s ascension into the heavens. He walks the listener through the 10 levels of heaven (anciently Jews and Christians believed in 3 to 40 levels of heaven).
“I saw a glorious angel not like unto the glory of the angels which I used always to see, but possessing such glory ad position that I cannot describe the glory of that angel. And having seized me by my hand he raised me on high….” (Asc 7:2-3)
As with Lehi and Nephi in their Visions of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 8-15), we see that ascension experiences or theophanies (seeing God) begin with an angel (or the Holy Spirit) guiding the person through the vision to God. As with Nephi’s vision, Isaiah converses with the angel. He asks and is asked several questions in regards to the vision he sees.
The angel takes Isaiah through the various levels of heaven. On the lower levels, there is a throne. The persons on the right of the throne have greater glory than those on the left. They worship God, who dwells on the seventh heaven.
And there was great glory in the second heaven, and the praise also was not like the praise of those who were in the first heaven. And I fell on my face to worship him, but he angel who conducted me did not permit me, but said unto me: “Worship neither throne nor angel which belongs to the six heavens – for for this cause I was sent to conduct thee – until I tell thee in the seventh heaven. For above all the heavens and their angels has thy throne been placed, and thy garments and thy crown which thou shalt see.”And I rejoiced with great joy, that those who love the Most High and His Beloved will afterwards ascend thither by the angel of the Holy Spirit (Asc 7:20-23).
So great is the glory of the second heaven that Isaiah kneels to worship the angel. However, as with John the Revelator, he is told to only worship God (Revelation 19:10). Those in the six lower heavens are great in glory, but do not measure up to the divine beings in the seventh heaven. We see that people ascend level by level with the guidance of the “angel of the Holy Spirit.”
Arriving to the 6th heaven (chapter 8), he notices that the beings are not divided to the right and left of the throne, but are all equally glorious.
And he said: “From the sixth heaven there are no longer angels on the left, nor a throne set in the midst, but (they are directed) by the power of the seventh heaven, where dwelleth He that is not named and the Elect One…And (power) was given to me also, and I also praised along with them and that angel also, and our praise was like theirs. And there they all named the primal Father and His Beloved, the Christ, and the Holy Spirit, all with one voice (Asc 8:7-18).
In chapter 9, Isaiah is escorted into the seventh heaven. Here an interesting dialogue occurs regarding Isaiah between the sentinel on the throne of the sixth heaven and Jesus:
AND he took me into the air of the seventh heaven, and moreover I heard a voice saying: “How far will he ascend that dwelleth in the flesh?” And I feared and trembled. And when I trembled, behold, I heard from hence another voice being sent forth, and saying: “It is permitted to the holy Isaiah to ascend hither; for here is his garment.” And I asked the angel who was with me and said: “Who is he who forbade me and who is he who permitted me to ascend?” And he said unto me: “He who forbade thee, is he who is over the praise-giving of the sixth heaven. And He who permitted thee, this is thy Lord God, the Lord Christ, who will be called “Jesus” in the world, but His name thou canst not hear till thou hast ascended out of thy body” (Asc 9:1-5).
The sentinel questioned whether Isaiah should be permitted to ascend to the highest heaven, but Christ authorized his entering in. Isaiah sees Abel, Enoch and many other great ones in the new spiritual garments. These special garments allow holy beings to be in the presence of God. Isaiah is also given a garment to wear, and is then able to praise God with this Divine Council of angels. Isaiah notes that while the righteous have new garments, they do not yet have their own thrones or crowns. The angel explains:
“Crowns and thrones of glory they do not receive, till the Beloved will descent in the form in which you will see Him descent [will descent, I say] into the world in the last days the Lord, who will be called Christ. Nevertheless they see and know whose will be thrones, and whose the crowns when He has descended and been made in your form, and they will think that He is flesh and is a man. And the god of that world will stretch forth his hand against the Son, and they will crucify Him on a tree, and will slay Him…And when He hath plundered the angel of death, He will ascend on the third day…And then many of the righteous will ascend with Him, whose spirits do not receive their garments till the Lord Christ ascend and they ascend with Him. Then indeed they will receive their [garments and] thrones and crowns, when He has ascended into the seventh heaven” (Asc 9:12-18).
The resurrected Christ gives garments, crowns and thrones to the righteous. Isaiah then desires to know all things about the world. An angel comes forth and gives him a book to read, which contains the prophecies of the future. In his own vision/theophany, Lehi also sees God’s throne. Jesus descends from heaven with his twelve apostles and gives Lehi a book to read, filled with the prophecies of Israel and the earth (1 Nephi 1).
Isaiah is presented before God and Christ. He joins Adam, Seth and the other members of the Divine Council in worshiping the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Jesus then descends through the levels of heaven. As he enters a level, he is emptied of glory so that he appears just as another being in that level of heaven. Jesus finally arrives to earth in his fleshly garment (physical body).
Isaiah then returns to earth himself, to share his vision with Hezekiah and others.
The Apocalypse of Paul
The Apocalypse of Paul was found in an ancient library in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. Most of the texts are Coptic/Gnostic, though most scholars do not believe the Apocalypse of Paul is Gnostic itself. While today we think of mass destruction and terrible things in using the term “apocalypse,” it initially meant a major vision from God.
The text begins with Paul meeting a child, who tells him they are going to travel to see his fellow apostles. The child turns out to be the Holy Spirit, and will be his guide through the ascension. The child takes Paul to a high mountain, a sacred space where the apostle may have a sacred experience. Nephi also was guided by the Holy Spirit and taken to a high mountain to begin his vision of the Tree of Life (1 Nephi 11).
The Holy Spirit explains “Now it is to the twelve apostles that you shall go, for they are elect spirits, and they will greet you.” They are the divine council in this ascent experience. Looking down and seeing the ancient earth, Paul sees the apostles in conjunction with the Creation of the world, with the Spirit guiding them.
The Spirit then carries Paul, first to the third heaven and then to the fourth. There, Paul says,
“I saw the angels resembling gods, the angels bringing a soul out of the land of the dead. They placed it at the gate of the fourth heaven. And the angels were whipping it. The soul spoke, saying, “What sin was it that I committed in the world?” The toll-collector who dwells in the fourth heaven replied, saying, “It was not right to commit all those lawless deeds that are in the world of the dead….When the soul heard these things (testimony from the witnesses), it gazed downward in sorrow. And then it gazed upward. It was cast down. The soul that had been cast down went to a body which had been prepared for it. And behold, its witnesses were finished. “
The toll-collector (or sentinel) acts as judge. Witnesses are brought forward. The soul is judged for his evil works and is punished for them. Paul then is escorted to the fifth and then the sixth heavens.
“Then we went up to the sixth heaven. And I saw my fellow apostles going with me, and the Holy Spirit was leading me before them. And I gazed up on high and saw a great light shining down on the sixth heaven. I spoke, saying to the toll-collector who was in the sixth heaven, “Open to me and the Holy Spirit who is before me.” He opened to me.”
Here the toll collector/sentinel allows them to pass to the seventh heaven. However, at the seventh heaven, the toll collector is rigid and exacting in who is allowed to pass:
“I saw an old man [...] light and whose garment was white. His throne, which is in the seventh heaven, was brighter than the sun by seven times. The old man spoke, saying to me, “Where are you going, Paul? O blessed one and the one who was set apart from his mother`s womb.” But I looked at the Spirit, and he was nodding his head, saying to me, “Speak with him!”. And I replied, saying to the old man, “I am going to the place from which I came.” And the old man responded to me, “Where are you from?” But I replied, saying, “I am going down to the world of the dead in order to lead captive the captivity that was led captive in the captivity of Babylon.” The old man replied to me saying, “How will you be able to get away from me? Look and see the principalities and authorities.” The Spirit spoke, saying, “Give him the sign that you have, and he will open for you.” And then I gave him the sign. He turned his face downwards to his creation and to those who are his own authorities. And then the <seventh> heaven opened.“
Paul then traveled to the tenth heaven with the apostles, where he greeted his fellows in the divine council.
The Books of Enoch
There are several ancient Books of Enoch, including First Enoch, and Secrets of Enoch. In them, Enoch ascends through the heavens, often including traveling among the stars and constellations. They introduce concepts such as the Creation, fallen angels, the Messiah, resurrection, the Millennium, etc. The writings of Enoch were so popular among early Christians that they were considered scripture, and quoted or referenced in the New Testament several times (see Jude 1:14-15).
In the book Third Enoch, he describes ascending and entering six halls or heavens, one within the next. He is in the Celestial temple, where the levels of heaven are rooms, going from the outer court towards the Holy of Holies. Approaching the seventh hall, he prays to God.
“Lord of the Universe, I pray thee, that the merit of Aaron, son of Amram, the lover of peace and the pursuer of peace, who has received the crown of priesthood from “The Glory” (Shekinah) on the mount of Sinai, be valid for me in this hour, so that Qafsiel, the prince, and the angels with him may not get power over me nor throw me down from the Heavens.”
Aaron is the brother of Moses and high priest of the temple. Enoch wishes to have the holiness and power of Aaron, so Satan and his demons do not cast him out of the Holy of Holies in God’s Celestial Temple. Shekinah also means “Presence” of God.
Enoch is guided by Metatron, one of the archangels (often related to Christ by Christian scholars), the sentinel at the door, and Enoch’s guide. Metatron takes him before the Holy One, in the “camp of Shekinah,” From a distance, he sees the chariot of God, God’s throne with its mercy seat and cherubim, surrounded by the “princes of the chariot” or divine council. The “Holy One” opens up all the gates of the temple, and bids Enoch enter within the Holy of Holies.
Enoch is accused by angels of belonging to the wicked who died in the Flood. They are incensed that he is in the Holy of Holies:
As soon as they saw me, they said before Him: “Lord of the Universe! What is this one that he should ascend to the height of heights? Is he not one from among the sons of (the sons of) those who perished in the days of the Flood? What doeth he in the Firmament (raqia)?”
Again the Holy One, blessed be He, answered and said to them: “What are ye, that ye enter and speak in My Presence? I delight in this one more than in all of you, and hence he shall be a prince and a ruler over you in the high Heavens.”
Forthwith all stood up and went out to meet me, prostrated themselves before me and said: “Happy art thou and happy is thy father for thy Creator doth favor thee” (3 Enoch 9:6-8).
The Lord makes Enoch a prince and a ruler over the lower angels in heaven. They bow before Enoch and worship him. In chapter 10, the Lord prepares a throne for Enoch, gives him a royal and heavenly garment (curtain or robe), and gives Enoch a new name, “Metatron” the archangel. The lower angels are told that Enoch/Metatron will rule over them.
Here we not only see Enoch ascend to God’s throne and receive a holy garment and crown, but that he is made a ruler under God’s authority and power. This concept is called theosis or divinization, and is an ancient belief among Jews and Christians. Forms of theosis, or becoming like God, are still believed in various Christian faiths, including the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and the LDS church.
The Revelation of Moses
The Revelation of Moses begins with a dialogue between God and Moses. The Lord tells him to rescue Israel from Egypt, but Moses questions why the Lord would call such a lowly person as he to be the deliverer.
God said: “Thou hast humbled thyself in saying ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’ but I will honour thee [as it is said: ‘He that is of lowly spirit shall obtain honour’, and I will give the whole of Egypt into thy hands, and I will bring thee up even near to my throne of glory; and I will shew thee the angels of the Heaven.” Thereupon God commanded Metatron, the angel of his presence (of the face), and said unto him: “Go and bring Moses with harps, and pipes, and drums, and dances, with joy, and songs, and praises.”
Metatron tells God that Moses cannot ascend, because he has a body of flesh. God commands Metatron to change his flesh to fire. Metatron then goes to Moses and tells him that he is Enoch, and is to be his escort to heaven. Metatron transfigures Moses into a being of heavenly flame, “his power like unto that of the angels” or divine council, and carries Moses up to heaven.
Moses ascends through the different levels of heaven. In several of the levels, he sees a special angel, whose name is not given. The angels in each place are described, along with the tasks they perform for God. Among the angels, he sees seraphim (see Isaiah 6:1-6), who stand before God, and whose wings cover them from the presence of God. In Isaiah 6, these represent the Divine Council of God. Another angel teaches things concerning the Creation, and the Law given at Sinai to Israel (symbolizing the Creation). It is in this part of the vision where Moses learns the Law.
“God said then to Moses: “Moses, my servant! Thou camest up here and hast been worthy of the privilege of seeing all with thy (earthly) power; and I have made thee ascend seven heavens, and have shown thee my treasures and I have given thee my law. Now thou shalt be worthy of seeing the two parks I have created in this world, one for the righteous and one for the sinners, viz. Paradise and Hell.”
In Hell, Moses is shown the various punishments given for different sins. In Paradise, Moses sees seventy thrones. He speaks with Abraham, Isaac and others upon their thrones.
In these and a variety of other ancient texts, we see temple motifs. An individual guided by an angel or Holy Spirit through the levels of heaven or the rooms of the temple, until they arrive to the Holy of Holies, God’s throne room. Along the way, there are sentinels who ensure the person is allowed to ascend to the next stage. The individual is transfigured or dressed in a special garment. The person learns of the earth’s history, the Creation and the future, often by reading a book. We find that Abraham, Enoch and other righteous receive thrones, crowns, and become divine under God’s power and authority. These are the key elements of theophanies, ascensions, and theosis/divinization – all tied to the sacred space of the temple.
Article was written by Gerald Smith