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4 little-discussed temple symbols and their meanings

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the September/October 2020 issue of LDS Living magazine. 

Regarding the symbolism of the temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Russell M. Nelson taught us that “each temple is a house of learning. There we are taught in the Master’s way. His way differs from modes of others. His way is ancient and rich with symbolism. We can learn much by pondering the reality for which each symbol stands. Teachings of the temple are beautifully simple and simply beautiful. They are understood by the humble, yet they can excite the intellect of the brightest minds.”1 Here are a few temple-related symbols and the significance behind them that may give you some greater insight as you ponder the temple and its ordinances. 

Garments

President Russell M. Nelson instructed, “Wearing the temple garment has deep symbolic significance. It represents a continuing commitment. Just as the Savior exemplified the need to endure to the end, we wear the garment faithfully as part of the enduring armor of God. Thus we demonstrate our faith in Him and in His eternal covenants with us.”2 President Boyd K. Packer explained, “Members who have received their temple ordinances thereafter wear the special garment or underclothing. . . . The garment represents sacred covenants. It fosters modesty and becomes a shield and protection to the wearer.”3 

The temple garment has an antecedent in the Old Testament. During the period of the law of Moses, both high priests and priests wore special linen breeches, which some scholars identify as undergarments.4 “Thou shalt make them linen breeches to cover their nakedness; from the loins even unto the thighs they shall reach . . . it shall be a statute for ever unto him and his seed after him” (Ex. 28:42–43). These linen breeches, together with all other sacred vestments, were “holy garments” (Ex. 28:2; see also v. 40). According to Exodus 28, Aaron and his sons were required to wear the linen breeches when they entered the tabernacle lest they “bear . . . iniquity, and die” (v. 43). 

Biblical scholar Deborah Rooke has written about the ancient priestly undergarments and compared them to our temple garments. She writes that “the obvious point of similarity between the ancient and the modern forms of underwear is that they are both invisible to the outward observer and yet both are a required part of correct sacred clothing in their respective contexts. It therefore seems reasonable to suggest that there may be some correspondence in function between the two.”5 The undergarments of the high priest were distinctive because of their woven patterns (see Ex. 28:39); according to one Hebrew lexicon, the rare verb in Exodus 28:39 (Hebrew: shibbatz) means “to weave patterns.”6 

Scholars can only guess at the design of the patterns. Elder Carlos E. Asay reveals also the distinctiveness of our temple garments: “Garments bear several simple marks of orientation toward the gospel principles of obedience, truth, life, and discipleship in Christ.”7 

On October 10, 1988, the First Presidency—Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson—explained in a letter: “Church members who have been clothed with the garment in the temple have made a covenant to wear it throughout their lives. . . . The promise of protection and blessings is conditioned upon worthiness and faithfulness in keeping the covenant. . . . Endowed members of the Church wear the garment as a reminder of the sacred covenants they have made with the Lord and also as a protection against temptation and evil. How it is worn is an outward expression of an inward commitment to follow the Savior.8 

Spencer W. Kimball explains that the garment provides several categories of protection for us: “Temple garments afford protection. . . . Though generally I think our protection is a mental, spiritual, moral one, yet I am convinced that there could be and undoubtedly have been many cases where there has been, through faith, an actual physical protection.”9 

An important discourse on the temple garment was written by Elder Carlos E. Asay (mentioned above). Among other teachings, he explained that “the piece of armor called the temple garment . . . strengthens the wearer to resist temptation, fend off evil influences, and stand firmly for the right. . . . And, to the degree it is honored, [it is] a token of what Paul regarded as taking upon one the whole armor of God.10 

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Apron 

The [ancient] high priest’s vestments included an ephod (or “special apron,” Ex. 39:2, note a), which was made of “gold, blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen” (Ex. 39:2). Biblical scholar Menahem Haran states that the ephod “is a sort of apron encircling the body from the loins downward.”11 Based on his reading of Exodus 28:27 and 39:20, Haran explains, “We may assume that when the priest wishes to remove the apron from his waist, he . . . can untie the ‘joining’ at his back and take off the ephod frontwards.”12 

The ephod, together with the Urim and Thummim, was associated with prophetic powers. According to the ancient work the Testament of Levi 8:2–10, “I [Levi] saw seven men in white clothing, who were saying to me, ‘Arise, put on the vestments of the priesthood, the crown of righteousness, the oracle of understanding, the robe of truth, the breastplate of faith, the miter for the head and the apron for prophetic power” (emphasis added). Beyond the high priest’s special apron, Genesis 3:7 refers to Adam and Eve’s aprons, made of fig leaves, which were worn in the garden of Eden (see “Fig Leaves”). 

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Fig Leaves 

In regard to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Genesis 3:7 states, “The eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” Here the scriptural author skillfully uses two nuanced components that hint at sexual matters (and, by way of extension, procreation) with reference to fig leaves. The couple sewed these together to cover their nakedness; figs, which consist of an abundance of seeds, are suggestive of reproductive powers. So, too, the color green is sometimes associated with fertility, fruitfulness, and living things, speaking of both spiritual and physical things (see Job 15:32; Ps. 37:2; Jer. 11:16–17; Hosea 14:8; D&C 135:6). 

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Names 

In the context of ancient and modern temples, names have a vital role—for both women and men.13 The most eminent name associated with temples, of course, is that of the Lord, but our own names are also exceptionally significant and powerful in the temple setting. 

The Lord’s name: All temples are “built unto [His] name” (D&C 105:33); in fact, the Lord commands us to build temples to His name (see D&C 124:39). Joseph Smith’s Kirtland Temple dedicatory prayer refers to the Lord’s name multiple times (see D&C 109:2–3, 9, 22). After the temple dedication, the Lord declared, “For behold, I have accepted this house, and my name shall be here” (D&C 110:7). Regarding the Lord’s name and the holy temples, President Dallin H. Oaks explained, “The Old Testament contains scores of references to the name of the Lord in a context where it clearly means the authority of the Lord. Most of these references have to do with the temple. . . . The scriptures speak of the Lord’s putting His name in a temple because He gives authority for His name to be used in the sacred ordinances of that house.”14 Elder David A. Bednar spoke of temple ordinances and Jesus’s name: “Thus, in the ordinances of the holy temple we more completely and fully take upon us the name of Jesus Christ.”15 

Jesus Christ’s new name: Jesus Christ, at His Second Coming, will have “a name written, that no man knew, but he himself” (Rev. 19:12). 

The “new name”: Several scriptural passages refer to the significance of our names in the setting of the temple—this pertains equally to women and men. In a passage that has multiple temple themes, Revelation 2–3 twice uses the term “new name”: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it” (Rev. 2:17); “Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God . . . and I will write upon him my new name” (Rev. 3:12). These passages in Revelation may be associated with another passage, in which the Lord revealed, “A white stone is given to each of those who come into the celestial kingdom, whereon is a new name written, which no man knoweth save he that receiveth it. The new name is the key word” (D&C 130:11). 

In Isaiah 56, the Lord refers to His temple via a variety of expressions (see vv. 1–7), then in verse 5 the Lord states that He will give temple worshippers a hand and a name: “I will give to them in my house [e.g., the temple] and within my walls a hand and a name” (translation by author). 

Just as a change of vestments— from secular street clothes to sacred vestments—indicates a favorable change of status, a new name also denotes an elevation of stature for all participants in the temple ordinances—females and males. 

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Lead image of the Suva Fiji Temple from Getty Images

With 175 separate entries, this volume explores a variety of these rich symbols and truths regarding ancient and modern temples. Listed in alphabetical order for convenient references, the entries deal with a broad range of categories, including temple architecture, rituals and ordinances, sacred clothing, sacrificial offerings, geometric symbols, colors, heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars), prayer and revelation, sacred names, religious festivals, and more. This thorough yet accessible collection allows each of us to gain a greater understanding of valuable symbols, enriching our temple experience and giving each of us a clearer vision of the many ways our temple worship points us toward Jesus Christ. Available now at Deseret Book stores and on DeseretBook.com.


NOTES

  1. Nelson, “Personal Preparation for Temple Blessings,” 33; emphasis added. 
  2. Nelson, “Personal Preparation for Temple Blessings,” 33. See also Hales, “Blessings of the Priesthood,” 32–34. 
  3. Packer, The Holy Temple, 75.
  4. The linen breeches were “undergarments of plain linen.” Durham, Exodus, 385.
  5. Rooke, “Breeches of the Covenant: Gender, Garments and the Priesthood,” 32.
  6. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1401. One may also review Welch and Foley, “Gammadia on Early Jewish and Christian Garments,” 253–58, who present evidence regarding an L-shaped symbol that has been found on early Jewish and Christian garments and other textiles. 
  7. Asay, “The Temple Garment,” 20; see also Marshall, “Garments,” 2:534. 
  8. Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson, First Presidency Letter, October 10, 1988, cited in Asay, “The Temple Garment,” 22; emphasis in the original. 
  9. Kimball, The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 539. Many other Church authorities have spoken regarding the protection of the temple garment. See for example, Hales, “Blessings of the Priesthood,” 32. 
  10. Asay, “The Temple Garment,” 20–21; emphasis in the original. See also Marshall, 
  11. “Garments,” 2:534. Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel, 166. 
  12. Haran, Temples and Temple-Service in Ancient Israel, 167. 
  13. For names in the temple setting, see Porter and Ricks, “Names in Antiquity: Old, New, and Hidden,” 501–22. 
  14. Oaks, “Taking upon Us the Name of Jesus Christ,” 81. 
  15. Bednar, “Honorably Hold a Name and Standing,” 98.
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