[Editor: This is the first in a series of excerpts from Jeffrey M. Bradshaw’s new book, entitled “Temple Themes in the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood.”The bookis available on Amazon.com and at selected LDS Bookstores (including Eborn Books, BYU Bookstore, the FAIR LDS Bookstore). An iBooks version is can be purchased from the Apple iBookstore, and a pdf version is available at www.templethemes.net]
Why Do We Participate in Temple Ordinances?
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has expressed the concern that sometimes “Church members focus on what the Lord wants them to do and how to do it, but forget the why.” Further explaining his feelings, he said:
While understanding the “what” and the “how” of the Gospel is necessary, the eternal fire and majesty of the Gospel springs from the “why.” When we understand why our Heavenly Father has given us this pattern for living, when we remember why we committed to making it a foundational part of our lives, the Gospel ceases to become a burden and, instead, becomes a joy and a delight. It becomes precious and sweet.
A Sometimes-Forgotten Reason for Temple Ordinances
Why do we participate in temple ordinances? Three main reasons come to mind:
- A first reason is personal communion with the Lord. I have often gone to the temple to seek help with the particular challenges of the moment. That help has always come when the time was right, and when I was sufficiently prepared to receive it. However, if personal communion with the Lord were the only reason to go to the temple, He could just as well have had special-purpose rooms for meditation and prayer built in every local meetinghouse. Members would have been spared considerable time, expense, and travel.
- A second reason is to receive required ordinances for ourselves and for our ancestors. The importance of providing these ordinances for each one of God’s children cannot be overstated. However, if performing the necessary ordinance work for others were the only reason we were invited to return to the temple frequently, the Lord could have designed the experience in a way that would have allowed us to complete the essential elements in behalf of each person much more efficiently, in minutes rather than hours.
- A third reason-sometimes forgotten, though equally essential-is to participate in instruction on the plan of happiness and our place within it. For example, each time we join in an endowment session, we benefit from approximately an hour and a half of divinely-prepared and carefully-executed lessons about the most important matters in the universe. This is the graduate school of spiritual instruction. Here we are taught not only as we reflect on what we see, hear, and do, but also as we receive enlightenment directly from the Holy Spirit, custom-tailored to our current needs and to our state of personal readiness, in a quiet setting free from inner and outer distractions.
The [elements of the] endowment… fall clearly into four distinct parts: the preparatory ordinances; the giving of instructions by lectures and representations; covenants; and, finally, tests of knowledge. I doubt that the Prophet Joseph, unlearned and untrained in logic, could of himself have made the thing so logically complete. The candidate for the temple service is prepared, as in any earthly affair, for work to be done. Once prepared, he is instructed in the things that he should know. When instructed, he covenants to use the imparted knowledge, and at once the new knowledge, which of itself is dead, leaps into living life. At last, tests are given him, whereby those who are entitled to know may determine whether the man has properly learned the lesson…
Altogether our temple worship follows a most excellent pedagogical system. I wish instruction were given so well in every schoolroom throughout the land, for we would then teach with more effect than we now do.
The endowment is so richly symbolic that only a fool would attempt to describe it; it is so packed full of revelations to those who exercise their strength to seek and see, that no human words can explain or make clear the possibilities that reside in the temple service. The endowment which was given by revelation can best be understood by revelation; and to those who seek most vigorously, with pure hearts, will the revelation be greatest….
In temple worship, as in all else, we probably gain understanding according to our different knowledge and capacity; but I believe that we can increase in knowledge and enlarge our capacity, and in that way receive greater gifts from God. I would therefore urge upon you that we teach those who go into the temples to do so with a strong desire to have God’s will revealed to them… not for publication, or for conversation, but for our own good, for the satisfying of our hearts.
The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood in Light of the Temple
The two parts of scripture that have had the most influence on my understanding and appreciation of temple worship are the book of Moses and section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Having been strengthened and enlightened in recent years by a close examination of the book of Moses, it has been a joy to feel ready at last, if still somewhat unprepared, to enter into a more serious study of section 84.
My desire to learn more about the relationship between the priesthood and the ordinances of the temple grew in studying a document from the First Presidency and the Twelve called the “Leadership Training Emphasis.” Among other things, it instructs local leaders to emphasize the role of the Melchizedek priesthood in preparing members for exaltation. Then, a passage of scripture is cited-the only verses specifically mentioned in the entire document-Doctrine and Covenants 84:19-22:
And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God.
Therefore, 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;
For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live.
These verses speak about the highest blessings of the Melchizedek Priesthood and point directly to the “why” of the temple ordinances-to help prepare mankind to “see the face of God… and live.” These words could not be plainer. What may be less appreciated, however, is the clarity with which the same revelation describes the required sequence of ordinances through which members may qualify for exaltation. The focal point for this description is verses 33-48, which set forth “The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood.” It is significant that this revelation was given in 1832, a decade before the Prophet began to teach many doctrines of the higher priesthood and the temple in plainness to the Saints in Nauvoo.
Modern Saints often struggle to understand the words and imagery of scripture. Although many of us read scripture daily, it is not the staple of our literary and religious life that it was in Joseph Smith’s time. Moreover, many scriptural terms such as “endow,” “seal,” “mystery,” “key,” “sign,” “token,” “calling,” and “election” have significantly changed in meaning and association since the early days of the Restoration. In other cases, the words have completely dropped out of our everyday vocabulary. It cannot be doubted that our difficulties in grasping the meaning of scripture are at least partly behind what Prothero calls a widespread “religious amnesia” that has dangerously weakened the foundations of faith. When scripture is consulted at all, it is too often “solely for its piety or its inspiring adventures” or its admittedly “memorable illustrations and contrasts” rather than its “deep memories” of spiritual understanding. Little wonder that the teaching of the central doctrines of the Gospel has been a significant focus of church leadership in recent years.
In this series of articles, I will explore the meaning of the verses summarizing the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood in light of the ordinances of exaltation, and within the overarching context of the New and Everlasting Covenant. In matters of doctrine, I have relied on what can be found in scripture and in statements of members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. To provide illustrations and additional background on historical, linguistic, and cultural matters, I have drawn from statements of other General Authorities, and from the writings of teachers and scholars.
Not surprisingly, the teachings and revelations of Joseph Smith have been a primary source of inspiration and enlightenment for this study. In his final years, the Prophet spoke frequently to the Saints about the doctrines of the higher priesthood and the temple, and was moved with a spirit of urgency about the work of salvation for the living and the dead. One of his frequent teaching methods was to take an obscure or misunderstood passage of scripture and unfold its true meaning to his listeners, drawing on his familiarity with an astonishing number of scriptural passages, and on the prophetic insights he had gained firsthand through divine revelation. Though he never commented directly on the verses summarizing the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood, his public teachings are filled with allusions and clarifications of the relevant doctrines and principles, making him easily the most able commentator on his own revelation.
Though I am writing from the perspective of a believing and practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I wish to make it clear that it is not an official publication of the Church, and that the views that are expressed herein are solely my own. Furthermore, I recognize that the nature of the subject matter has required my delving into many topics for which I claim no special insight or expertise. Mistaken assertions, faulty matters of judgment, typographical errors, and editorial imperfections of many kinds have doubtless made their way into these articles. Thus, I gratefully welcome any corrections and suggestions from readers.
It is my prayer that this attempt to make plainer the meaning and import of the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood in a temple context will encourage readers in their own study, and in their personal efforts to understand and keep their covenants.
Links to all of the articles in this series-
Part 2 “A Christ-Centered View“
Part 5 “What is the Endowment?”
Part 7 “The Meaning of the Atonement“
Part 13: “Weary Him Until He Blesses You”
To purchase Jeffrey M. Bradshaw’s new book Temple Themes in the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood click here.
D. F. Uchtdorf, Forget Me Not, p. 122. Copyright Intellectual Reserve, Inc. Used by permission. See also D. A. Bednar, Teach Them; D. A. Bednar, Increase, pp. 151-154; D. F. Uchtdorf, Acting, pp. 20-21.
In the public domain. Found in Return to Nauvoo, Expanded Liner Notes and Lyrics to the Hymns. In FiddleSticks: Celtic and American Folk Music. (accessed February 12, 2012).
 First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Leadership Training Emphasis, 10 December 2009. The first version of this document is dated 29 September 1995. The revision was approved by the First Presidency and the Twelve on 10 December 2009. In 2010, Elder L. Tom Perry highlighted the importance of the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood in an online interview (L. T. Perry, Elder Perry on the Priesthood 1).
 In other discussions of the Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood, the end of the passage has almost always been given as either v. 39 or v. 42. But, as will be discussed later on, the admonition to give heed to the “words of eternal life” and to hearken unto the voice of the Spirit until we come to the Father that are found in vv. 43-48 are significant aspects of the teachings of Joseph Smith on this subject.
 See, e.g., D. A. Bednar, Teach Them; D. A. Bednar, Increase, pp. 151-174; H. B. Eyring, Jr., Power; M. K. Jensen, Anchors; S. D. Nadauld, Principles, pp. 88-89; B. K. Packer, Principles; B. K. Packer, Children, p.17; B.K. Packer, Plan of Happiness; B. K. Packer, Do Not Fear, p. 79; B. K. Packer, Errand, pp. 307-312. President Boyd K. Packer, among others, has often noted the fact that “God gave unto [men] commandments, after having made known unto them the plan of redemption” (Alma 12:32, emphasis added. See, e.g., D. A. Bednar, Increase, p. 154; B. K. Packer, Plan of Happiness).
 In discussing temple matters, I have tried to follow the model of Hugh W. Nibley, who was, according to his biographer Boyd Jay Petersen, “respectful of the covenants of secrecy safeguarding specific portions of the LDS endowment, usually describing parallels from other cultures without talking specifically about the Mormon ceremony. This approach earned him a great deal of trust from both General Authorities and from Church members” (B. J. Petersen, Nibley, p. 354). Petersen cites a letter of gratitude sent from Elder Dallin H. Oaks to Nibley for his approach to temple scholarship. Along with the letter was a copy of a talk Elder Oaks had given “in which he addressed the manner and extent to which temple ordinances should be discussed outside the temple. Oaks assured Hugh that nothing in this talk is intended to be a criticism of a discouragement of efforts as sensitive as yours. The talk has some targets, but you aren’t one of them'” (ibid., p. 356). For Nibley’s views on confidentiality as it relates to temple ordinances, see, e.g., H. W. Nibley, Sacred, pp. 553-554, 569-572.
 E.g., “I would advise all the Saints to go with their might and gather together all their living relatives to this place, that they may be sealed and saved… [I]f the whole Church should go with all their might to save their dead, seal their posterity, and gather their living friends, and spend none of their time in behalf of the world, they would hardly get through before night would come, when no man can work…” (J. Smith, Jr., Teachings, 20 January 1844, pp. 330-331).
Ironically, of all Joseph Smith’s great accomplishments in the work of the Restoration, the one perhaps least appreciated was his immense knowledge of the scriptures. The scriptures were the brick and mortar of all his sermons, writings, and other personal communications; he quoted them, he alluded to them, he adapted them in all his speaking and writing.
The Prophet’s extensive use of the scriptures may not be obvious to the casual reader. In the book Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, for example, the Prophet appears to cite fewer than one passage of scripture every other page… But that figure misses the mark. A more careful reading of this book reveals some twenty scriptures for every one actually cited. When I discovered that, I began to ask, not “When is the Prophet quoting scripture,” but rather “What might he be quoting that is not scripture?”
…. [A] computer-aided search of the Teachings has identified several thousand distinctive scriptural phrases or passages. These scriptural citations of the Prophet come from almost every book of the Old and New Testament and from most books and sections of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price.