Occasionally I will hear the subject of “mysteries” brought up in a church class or in conversations with other church members like it is an off-limits subject; “Don’t go delving into those mysteries!” I often wonder if they know what mysteries are.
Then there are those not of the Latter-day Saint faith that are concerned about the so-called ‘secrecy’ aspect of Latter-day Saint temples.
In an attempt to shed some light on a subject that ironically is meant to shed light in and of itself, perhaps something can be gained by understanding and pondering the word “mystery”.
First off, although there are limits set to receive mysteries, they are not off-limits. The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi had “great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me” (1 Nephi 2:16 ). In another place he also stated clearly that:
For he that diligently seeketh shall find; and the mysteries of God shall be unfolded unto them, by the power of the Holy Ghost, as well in these times as in times of old, and as well in times of old as in times to come; wherefore, the course of the Lord is one eternal round. (1 Nephi 10:19, emphasis added)
What does the word “mystery” mean to you? Here is a modern definition of the word pulled right off of Google:
mys·ter·y / ˈmist(ə)rē / Noun: Something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.
That is pretty accurate in the secular sense but is perfectly wrong in a religious sense, and since a temple is a religious edifice we will need a religious context. Turning to the New Testament we find the word mystery mentioned 27 times. You’ll have to look up each of those verses on your own and ponder them after we discover more about what a “mystery” is.
One instance of the word mystery is found in 1 Corinthians 2:7, “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory.” Here is the translation of “mystery” offered by Strong’s Concordance:
musthrion / musterion /moos-tay’-ree-onfrom a derivative of muo (to shut the mouth); a secret or “mystery” (through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites):–mystery. (Strong’s emphasis added)
Understanding that silence can be imposed by initiation into religious rites can help the ‘uninitiated’ understand why members of the LDS faith do not talk about some specifics of the temple outside of the temple – they don’t have the authority or the right to reveal them. The things of the temple belong to God and he has set the prerequisites for how, when and in what context to reveal them.
The temple is a place of learning, but not in the world’s way of learning; for example, ponder these words of the Apostle Paul in the context of “mysteries” and temple worship (I will be referencing the Contemporary English Version of the Bible here for clarity):
We do use wisdom when speaking to people who are mature in their faith. But it isn’t the wisdom of this world or of its rulers, who will soon disappear. We speak of God’s hidden and mysterious wisdom that God decided to use for our glory long before the world began. The rulers of this world didn’t know anything about this wisdom. If they had known about it, they would not have nailed the glorious Lord to a cross.
But God has given us his Spirit. That’s why we don’t think the same way that the people of this world think. That’s also why we can recognize the blessings that God has given us. Every word we speak was taught to us by God’s Spirit, not by human wisdom. And this same Spirit helps us teach spiritual things to spiritual people. That’s why only someone who has God’s Spirit can understand spiritual blessings. Anyone who doesn’t have God’s Spirit thinks these blessings are foolish. (1 Cor 2:6-8,12-14 CEV, emphasis added)
According to Paul, the mysteries of God and his wisdom are foolishness to the ‘uninitiated’; but just being ‘initiated’ isn’t enough. I doubt that the first time someone is baptized they realize the beautiful and profound symbolism associated with the ordinance.
In like manner, how can someone at first glance understand an ordinance that is hundreds of times more complex and rich in various nuances? I wonder how many of the ‘initiated’ really understand what the ordinances of the temple are.
As Latter-day Saints, we believe that “in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; (D&C 84:20,21 emphasis added). To receive an ordinance is to be ‘initiated’ into a mystery; in other words, these essential ordinances open a gate to a path and there are experiences along that path if you do not stop at the gate.
The covenants made in ordinances are real in the sense that they represent literal promises and blessings. Every covenant is made through an ordinance and every ordinance is presented through ceremony. Some of these ceremonies are short and others are long but they are all symbolic and represent higher things, they are mysteries.
Baptism takes only seconds, but the ceremony is there. White clothes are worn, a person representing Christ enters the water along with the initiate. The person representing Christ, the baptizer, raises his right arm in token of his authority and speaks the words of the ordinance. The initiate makes the covenant by being immersed in water in likeness of Christ’s death and then raised out of the water in likeness of Christ’s resurrection (Romans 6:3,4). At this point, the ceremony is over, the ordinance is complete and the covenant has been made.
This same pattern is true for any ordinance in the gospel. To witness a Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting is to witness what I believe is the longest and most intricate ceremony outside of the temple. Usually the ceremonial part of any ordinance can draw so much of our focus that we do not realize what it really is.
The ceremony is meant to symbolically illustrate the blessings, promises and circumstances associated with the covenants being made. The ceremony is not the “real thing”, it is only a representation of the real thing. Consider the words of author Denver Snuffer:
“The ceremony of the temple is not the real thing. It is a symbol of the real thing. The real thing is when a person actually obtains an audience with Jesus Christ, returns to His presence and gains the knowledge by which they are saved…If all you receive are ordinances, you have nothing of real value. They are dead without a living, personal connection with God. God alone can and will save you.” (Passing the Heavenly Gift, p.53,55)
Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley had similar words to say concerning this:
The ordinances are mere forms. They do not exalt us; they merely prepare us to be ready in case we ever become eligible.” (The Meaning of the Temple,” CWHN 12:26)
In both secular and religious settings we discuss, debate, explore and reason together; it plays an immensely important role in our purpose here on earth. Latter-day Saints recognize that there are places where we teach each other and places that God teaches us.
The temple is a place where an individual may come and practice a form of worship and engage in learning that is directly between them and God. It is highly personal and the sacred silence practiced by those who attend the temple is a manifestation of their reverence to God. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma taught:
…It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him. (Alma 12:9, emphasis added)
Whether the mysteries of God are revealed to us inside or outside of the temple, there are rules according to what we can and cannot reveal. It is the heed and diligence we give to God that determines what we are able to know. This is one of the most basic teachings of the temple.
There were many times that Jesus Christ himself imposed sacred silence upon his followers. In Matthew 17, we read of a very temple-themed experience where Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to “a very high mountain”. Jesus is then transfigured before them and openly speaks with messengers Moses and Elijah along with a personal visit from God the Father who speaks from behind the veil of a overshadowing cloud!
As they are descending the mountain after this incredible experience, “Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Son of Man had been raised from death”. (vs. 9, CEV, emphasis added)
If you want to know the mysteries of God, then the ceremonies, ordinances and covenants he has provided are the place to start. They teach us the necessary patterns that must be followed and offer us the covenants that must be made in order to receive such knowledge.