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Introduction to the Book for Meridian Readers
We have loved the scriptures from our youth. Thanks to our parents, we grew up in a home where the scriptures were studied and discussed. During our high school years, we attended early-morning seminary and had the one of the best teachers of scriptures in the Church: our Dad!
Add to our love of the Lord’s written word a growing wonder and appreciation for the symbolism that is woven throughout the books of scripture. The presence of types and symbols in scriptural texts has fascinated us for more than two decades. During this period of time, our broad understandings have focused more and more on symbols that teach regarding Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice. And at the same time, we have begun to understand how true it is that types and symbols of Christ can be found in “all things” (2 Nephi 11:4).
Don recalls an experience with symbols that really opened a door to understanding: “One day I was searching the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and I received an insight that impacted me both spiritually and emotionally. This insight pertained to pierced bread, a particular food that was offered on the temple’s sacrificial altar. Pierced bread, symbolizing the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ, who was pierced on the cross! This was a jump-out-of-the chair insightful moment.”
Jay had a similar experience: “Once as I sat pondering during the sacrament, my eyes on the sacrament table, I suddenly realized that I was looking at a shroud! Under that white linen covering, used in some cultures to cover the remains of the dead, were placed the emblems, or symbols, of the body and blood of Christ. As I thought further about it, my understanding rapidly deepened, as I saw the table as an altar of sacrifice—both His and ours—and the hands that gently broke the bread of sacrifice and served the water of sacrifice as representing other hands—both His and ours.”
Other symbols have similarly impacted us because they are so graphic, vivid, startling, and wonderful—beaten oil, flayed sacrifices, sprinkled blood, fountain of water, delightful fruit, the slaughter of an innocent red heifer, and angel’s food. Each symbol makes us feel something wonderful about Jesus’ divine sacrifice to the point that our love and understanding are enlarged.
We, each of us, know that Jesus is the vine, the manna, the bread of life, the pillar of fire, the light of the world, the tree of life and its fruit, and the source of living water. His love and the atonement that stems from it are the most desirable above all things. His physical light and water are absolutely essential for the life and growth of every living thing on the earth. His spiritual light and water are equally essential to our spiritual and emotional life and growth. And all the ways in which he blesses us are made possible because of his atoning sacrifice.
From Font to Temple
The ordinances receive their very efficacy from the atonement. If there had been no atonement, the ordinances would have no power; they would have no saving purpose whatsoever. The natural man—one who has not been changed by submitting his heart to God and receiving of the powers of the atonement—is an enemy to God (Mosiah 3:19).
Without the atonement, we have no way to bridge the gap between being natural, “carnal, sensual, and devilish” (Moses 5:13) and becoming a “saint” (Mosiah 3:19). As long as we remain in that lost and forsaken state without a redeemer, none of our faithfulness or obedience will take us toward eternal life—including the ordinances we participate in.
But with the atonement in place, Christ has ordained certain acts that will bind us to him and to the Father by covenant. Through these acts, the ordinances, we partake of the promise the Lord gave to Adam after he was baptized with water and fire: “Behold, thou art one in me, a son of God; and thus may all become my sons” (Moses 6:68). Oneness with God is the ultimate purpose of the at-one-ment performed by Christ. Thus the ordinances are keys in that process.
The essential ordinances help to literally fulfill the purposes of the atonement. (The essential ordinances are those that are absolutely necessary for exaltation; they include baptism, confirmation, priesthood ordination for men, and the temple endowment and sealing.) Those purposes include cleansing us of sin, bringing us into the family of Christ, giving us power and authority like those held by Christ, helping us to be strengthened by the accompanying covenants, and (as just noted) bringing us into oneness with God.
There are several other ways the ordinances stand as witnesses of Christ and his atonement:
• Every ordinance is performed by the authority of the priesthood. The priesthood itself flows from God. The full, formal name of the Melchizedek Priesthood is “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God” (D&C 107:3). Christ himself is the “priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7:17). It is because he is the Atoner that the priesthood has power to bless.
• The priesthood holder acts for Christ, with his authority. The priesthood holder acts in Christ’s stead, doing the things the Lord would do if he were here. In that process, the priesthood holder is an agent and representative of the Savior himself. This truth is underscored in a principle the Lord expressed to Edward Partridge: “I will lay my hand upon you by the hand of my servant Sidney Rigdon, and you shall receive my Spirit, the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which shall teach you the peaceable things of the kingdom” (D&C 36:2). The Lord did not actually place his hands upon Edward Partridge’s head. Instead, he commissioned Sidney Rigdon to perform the confirmation of Brother Partridge.
In the process, though, it was truly as though the Lord himself were laying his hands on Brother Partridge’s head, because Sidney Rigdon had been empowered and sent with full authority to represent God.
• Every ordinance requires faith in Christ, and every essential ordinance requires repentance, made possible through Christ because of his atonement. The first principles of the gospel—faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance through the power of his atonement—accompany not only baptism and the reception of the Holy Ghost but also every ordinance in which we participate. And of course, mankind’s ability to exercise faith in Christ and to repent rests on the fact that Christ took upon himself our sins.
• Every ordinance is done in the name of Christ, because he is the Savior, Redeemer, Mediator, and Atoner. The Lord taught Adam this principle almost in the beginning. When Adam was offering sacrifices without understanding, the Lord sent an angel to instruct him. What the angel said about sacrifices in some ways is true of every ordinance: “This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth. Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore” (Moses 5:7–8).
Because our sins separate us from God, we cannot act in our own names and have our acts be recognized by God. We must have a mediator, a savior, whose power of redemption will validate our righteous acts. We need One who is not separated from God to stand between us and God. Hence, all of our righteous acts, all of our testimonies and teachings—and all ordinances—must be done in the name of Jesus Christ, that perfect Redeemer.
• We follow Christ as we perform priesthood ordinances—and we serve as types of Christ, who also performed the ordinances. When he was on the earth, the Savior performed blessings of babies, baptisms, confirmations, priesthood ordinations, and healings of the sick. He administered the sacrament. Priesthood holders are doing as he did in these very important events in a person’s life. We are types or shadows of the great High Priest.
• We follow Christ as we receive priesthood ordinances and thereby serve as types of Christ, who also received the ordinances. When he walked the mortal earth, Jesus Christ received a blessing as a baby, baptism, a form of confirmation, and perhaps other ordinances. Nephi emphasized that we must follow Christ in receiving the ordinances. After telling us of the baptism of Christ, he quoted the Savior as saying, “Follow thou me” (2 Ne. 31:10; see also vv. 12–13, 16–17). Following Christ in receiving the ordinances not only helps to prepare and qualify us for a celestial reward, but it also enables us to stand as types of Christ. In the process we partake of blessings of his atonement.
• The presence of the Spirit during ordinances is a witness of the atonement. During ordinances we often feel the presence of the Spirit and the power of God. To enter into God’s presence—or to have him come into ours through his Spirit—is a witness of the atonement of Christ. Without the atonement we are separated from God, with no chance of a re-union. But with the atonement, we are able to be restored to his presence. Our experience with the Spirit during ordinances (both as administrator and as recipient) is a manifestation of Christ’s power and demonstrates that his atonement and our obedience in receiving the ordinance work together to help accomplish the re-union we desire.
In addition, the Holy Ghost is the conveyor of all the other godly gifts—gifts of the Spirit, cleansing from sin, strength, comfort, and so on. The gifts are delivered or administered by the Spirit, but the source of the gifts is our Father in Heaven, made possible through the atonement of Christ.
• Receiving and obeying ordinances is part of what it means to “come unto Christ” (Moro. 10:32). To come unto Christ and partake of his atonement, we have to meet his requirements: having a broken heart and a contrite spirit, receiving all the prescribed ordinances, and living “by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God” (D&C 84:44). Partaking of the ordinances is not a mere form; it is an essential part of the process of receiving the atonement into our lives.
President Boyd K. Packer has repeatedly taught the crucial importance of ordinances. In instructing leaders of the Church, he said:
You may wonder how to proceed to implement the mission of the Church in the lives of your members. Where should you focus your attention and energy? . . .
We are to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man by concentrating on ordinances and on the covenants associated with them. . . . That is written there in the mission statement of the Church.
A good and useful and true test of every major decision made by a leader in the Church is whether a given course leads toward or away from the making and keeping of covenants. . . . Centering your mind on ordinances and covenants gives purpose to all the many things we do in preaching the gospel and perfecting the Saints.1
It is clear that all ordinances point us to our Savior and serve as visible, physical reminders of his atonement. As a group, ordinances are filled with meaning that points us directly to the source that gives them efficacy and power.
In addition, each of the individual ordinances is rich with symbolism pertaining to the Savior. Joseph Smith said, “The ordinances of the Gospel . . . were laid out before the foundations of the world” and “are not to be altered or changed.”2 God has ordained a very particular way that man should perform and receive ordinances, and man has neither the authority nor the wisdom to change those divinely inspired procedures. Further, if we were to change the ordinances, we would surely lose essential, God-designed symbolism. It is not incidental that one of the accusations the Lord made against ancient, apostate man—and repeated in this dispensation—was that he had changed the ordinances and broken the everlasting covenant of the gospel (see Isa. 24:5; D&C 1:15).
Let’s look at some individual ordinances and consider some of their specific symbolisms.
Ordinances Involving the Laying On of Hands
Joseph Smith learned by revelation that “from the [higher priesthood] comes the administering of ordinances and blessings upon the church, by the laying on of the hands” (D&C 107:67). Laying on of hands is used in priesthood ordinations, confirmations, priesthood blessings, settings apart, patriarchal blessings, fathers’ blessings, and blessings of the sick. Important elements of the laying on of hands, all of which have symbolism relating to Christ and his atonement, include the following:
Hands. Hands symbolize the power to do, to minister, to bless. Hands can symbolize that the recipient has been touched by the hand of God, conveying the idea of transmission of power from on high (D&C 36:2).
Head. The head is the seat of thought, the will, and the five senses. The head represents the entirety of a person. It rules the body and gives it all it needs: food, oxygen, information, and so forth. As the head is the ruling part of the body, Christ is the head or ruling part of each of us. He gives us all we need, both temporally and spiritually. To have hands laid on our head signifies that the ruling portion of the body is fully participating and receiving the blessing. It also signifies that we yield ourselves to Christ, who is our head and the head of the priesthood.
The circle. Ann N. Madsen wrote, “The circle of priesthood that had surrounded that infant [in a blessing] symbolically formed a circle of protection against evil throughout that child’s life.”3 A circle can represent the protection of priesthood and righteous loved ones—as well as the protection we receive when we submit ourselves to Christ and his plan for us.
A circle also symbolizes completeness and sufficiency. When we are surrounded by a circle of priesthood holders, we are receiving a priesthood action that is sufficient and complete for our need. Further, a circle can symbolize perfection. In a priesthood ordinance involving a circle of hands and priesthood brethren, we are promised a sufficiency of blessings of the atonement of Christ.
Pronouncement of blessings. We often speak of receiving blessings from the Lord. When we bless a baby (or anyone) by the power of the priesthood, the ordinance represents an immediate pronouncement of a blessing, or the promise of a blessing. That blessing is usually conditional and often will be fulfilled sometime in the future. When the blessing is fulfilled, it comes in the form of a gift from God called, again, a blessing.
Blessings are representations of the grace of God, which is given to man because of Christ’s atonement. Because the Savior has bridged the gap between God and man, man can once again receive all that God would give him, all in the form of blessings.
All pronouncements of blessings are properly made by revelation. Revelation itself is a sign of the atonement. As long as we are enemies to God, we are estranged from him and are not able to receive his guidance and direction. But when we are reconnected to him through the atoning power of Christ, we can receive communication that is both direct and clear. The reality of revelation is a testimony of the reality of the atonement.
Healing of the Sick
All healing is made possible because of the atonement. “O all ye that are spared,” Jesus cried to the survivors of the Nephite devastations, “will ye not now return unto me, and repent of your sins, and be converted, that I may heal you?” (3 Ne. 9:13).
He can heal us of both our spiritual and our physical sicknesses. He has power to do this because, as Alma taught, “he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people” (Alma 7:11).
Healing the physically sick is a type of spiritual healing. It is a physical manifestation of the power of the atonement, of the power of God’s love, sent by way of great blessing unto his children.
Anointing with consecrated olive oil. When priesthood brethren use their hands to anoint someone’s head with consecrated oil, many symbolisms are occurring at once. Their hands represent God’s hands. The recipient’s head represents the whole of his or her being. The olive oil represents the Holy Ghost (D&C 45:56–57). The oil also suggests the oil that came forth from the olive press at the olive garden at Gethsemane, which in turn represents the Savior’s suffering there.
One of the great purposes of the laying on of hands is to confirm a person a member of the Church and to invite him or her to receive the Holy Ghost. Confirmation can therefore help bring a literal fulfillment of one of the great purposes of the atonement: the gift of reconciliation, where we receive the actual, immediate presence of a member of the Godhead.
As noted above, when we receive the Spirit’s presence we come, at least to a degree, to a state of at-one-ment with God, through the Spirit. That blessing of at-one-ment is made possible because of the atoning sacrifice of Christ, which we receive as we receive the ordinance and qualify our hearts.
Baptism is one of the most richly symbolic ordinances in the Church. Consider some of the elements in baptism that point us to Christ:
The white clothing symbolizes purity, which is possible only through the atonement of Christ.
The water has several meanings. It stands for literal water, which can wash, refresh, and renew. It stands for the blood of Christ and for the way in which we can wash our garments, and our bodies, in his blood. And it symbolizes living water, which flows from Christ to constantly strengthen and replenish our souls. Immersion in the water symbolizes fully being washed, fully entering into the covenant, and fully being covered by that living water.
The right hand raised to the square symbolizes reaching up to heaven, making a sign of a covenant between God and man. The square in the carpenter’s toolbox (remember who the Carpenter is) represents exactness in all we do. Christ, as the only person who was perfectly exact in his mortal life, could himself be symbolized as a square. When we participate in covenants involving the symbol of the square, we are reaching up to God in a way that reminds us of Christ, in whose name the covenants are made.
The font. The font is symbolic of the grave. It symbolizes the death of each one of us and our individual resurrection through the power of Christ, as well as the death and resurrection of Christ himself (D&C 128:12–13).
Baptism is also symbolic of us giving the old man to God, of the old man being washed clean, of letting the old man die, and of then being born again, a “new creature” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:20–24). Thus, the font—and baptism by immersion—is symbolic not only of the tomb but also of the womb. But it is not only symbolic—we also literally are made new when we are baptized of the water and the Spirit with pure hearts, with real intent, having faith in Christ. Paul wrote: As the body of Jesus was buried in the tomb, “we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
In our rebirth, we are born into the family of Christ. We take upon ourselves his name and become his sons and daughters (Mosiah 5:7; 27:25; Ether 3:14).
In all births, three elements are present: water, blood, and spirit (Moses 6:59–60). These same three elements were present at the atonement of Christ: water (from his side), blood (from his sufferings), and spirit (the Father’s presence, the Son’s own spirit, and the Holy Ghost). These three elements are present at our spiritual rebirth: the water of baptism, the blood of Christ through the atonement, and the Spirit of God. And they are also present, or represented, as we remember Christ and our covenant to him in the sacrament.
Immersion in the water symbolizes the total commitment of our whole being, fully entering into covenant, fully being washed, fully being covered by the living water that is Christ. With immersion we follow Christ into a new birth. We follow him into the grave and then to resurrection. We follow him with all our being. In sum, immersion in baptism represents both our physical and spiritual death and our being made alive again in Christ.
Of all the ordinances, the sacrament has the most obvious symbolism of the atonement. When Jesus introduced the sacrament to his apostles at the Last Supper, he said regarding the bread, “Take, eat; this is in remembrance of my body which I give a ransom for you.” And regarding the wine, he said, “This is in remembrance of my blood of the new testament, which is shed for as many as shall believe on my name, for the remission of their sins” (JST Matt. 26:22, 24).
When he visited the Nephites, he said after providing the sacrament to them, “He that eateth this bread eateth of my body to his soul; and he that drinketh of this wine drinketh of my blood to his soul; and his soul shall never hunger nor thirst, but shall be filled” (3 Ne. 20:8).
The emblems (the word emblem means “symbol”) of the sacrament point clearly and directly to the atoning sacrifice of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross. As we partake, we have the remarkable opportunity of taking into ourselves symbolic food and drink that represent the very atonement of Jesus Christ—and by taking it into ourselves, we signify that we make that atonement part of us.
The sacrament also has several other symbolisms:
• Ancient sacrifices were performed in “similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father” (Moses 5:7). The sacramental sacrifice is performed in remembrance of that sacrifice.
• The offering is made by priesthood officiators, who act in behalf of Christ and follow him in breaking the bread and blessing the bread and water.
• Those making the offering kneel and offer a prayer at a table that represents an altar of sacrifice.
• The recipient of the sacrament makes his own sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. The words sacrament, sacrifice, and sacred all come from the same Latin root. Christ made his sacred and holy sacrifice for us so that we could partake of the sacrament, during which we make our own sacred offering, or sacrifice.
• The bread is broken as a reminder that Christ’s flesh was broken in the performance of the atonement.
• The bread also represents the bread of life, which also is Christ. Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread he shall live for ever” (John 6:51).
• In addition to representing the blood shed by Christ in the atonement, the water also represents the living water, which flows from Christ.
• The bread and water are covered by a white cloth, like a shroud, just as Christ’s body was covered by a shroud.
• The sacramental prayers, which must be offered with exact wording, are Christ-centered: the prayers are offered in the name of Christ and focus on eating and drinking “in remembrance” of the body and blood of Christ; they indicate the participants’ willingness to “take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them” (D&C 20:77, 79).
• When we keep the covenant to always remember him, the Lord said, “Ye shall have my Spirit to be with you” (3 Ne. 18:7). To have the Spirit with us is a tangible manifestation of oneness with God—and that oneness is a measure of the fulfillment of at-one-ment in our lives.
Finally,Latter-day Saint scholar John A. Tvedtnes has given us this insight:
[One of] the native Hebrew terms for wine literally means “blood of the grape” (Genesis 49:11; Deuteronomy 32:14).
The Hebrew word for “bread” is lehem, though its original meaning was “flesh,” as we learn from the Arabic cognate, lahm. It is the second element in the name of Jesus’ birthplace, Beth-lehem, “house of bread.” Consequently, bread was a fitting symbol for the flesh of the Savior, who declared himself to be “the true bread from heaven” (see John 6:32–58).4
No wonder the sacrament is so important that the entire meeting is named after it. Partaking of the sacrament is the most important thing we’ll do at a meeting all week.
Priesthood ordinations also point both literally and symbolically to Christ. The elements of the ordinance—priesthood, hands, circle, Spirit, revelation, the name of Christ—were reviewed in our discussion above. When a man receives the Melchizedek Priesthood, he is receiving the priesthood of Christ (D&C 107:3; see also Heb. 2:17; 3:1; 4:14–15; 5:5–10). The priesthood is made available to us as mortals because of the atonement. As Alma taught, “This holy calling [was] 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” (Alma 13:5).
The oath and covenant of the priesthood also points to a union with Christ through the atonement. We read in Doctrine and Covenants 84: “And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord; . . . and he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; and he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him. And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood” (vv. 35–39).
When we do the work of the priesthood in righteousness, we become ministers of the atonement to our brothers and sisters on the earth. The Lord declared this marvelous truth in December 1832, less than three months after revealing the oath and covenant of the priesthood. Said he, “Blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel” (D&C 86:11; see also D&C 103:9).
The temple is distinctly a place of at-one-ment. It is the Lord’s house, and it is there that we can often feel his Spirit most strongly. When we enter the doors of the temple, we are walking into sacred space, a place that has been cleansed both physically and spiritually; we thereby enter, in a sense, into the presence of the Lord. The work of at-one-ment, or re-union, with God is brought to partial fruition in the temple. As Elder John A. Widtsoe put it, in the temple we may “always have a wonderfully rich communion with God.”5
The structure, the clothing, the ceremonies of the temple ordinances are all freighted with great symbolism.6 That symbolism points us to various elements of the plan of salvation; but, significantly, it particularly points to Jesus Christ, his atonement, and his role in bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of the family of man.
Jesus Christ is so much a focal point of the temple that we are commanded upon entering the temple to see “that all [your] incomings . . . into this house, may be in the name of the Lord; that all [your] outgoings from this house may be in the name of the Lord; that all [your] salutations may be in the name of the Lord, with holy hands, uplifted unto the Most High” (D&C 109:17–19).
Brigham Young University professor Andrew Skinner has written:
All of the foreordained principles and ordinances of the Father’s plan, especially those received in the temple, are intricately tied to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. . . .
The teachings found in the temple are like a funnel. They begin broadly, focusing our attention ever more narrowly on the Son of God and his atoning activities in mortality. Temple teachings also pull together principles from different dispensations in a dramatized, step-by-step ascent to godhood, always with the Atonement in mind.7
Elder Marion D. Hanks expressed how thoroughly the temple teaches us of Jesus Christ and his atonement:
My testimony [is] that for me everything in the temple points ultimately to Christ and to our Father. The efficacy of the ordinances and covenants is in his atoning love and delegated authority. . . . Temple worship can become a critical key to knowing the Lord. . . .
. . . In learning and appreciating the principles upon which his holy life was based, . . . we can truly appreciate his sacred gift, his atoning death, and the pattern of his holy life. . . .
Ultimately in a temple we kneel at a sacred altar and there covenant and, in the manner of temple symbolism, once more have our attention pointed toward him and how he died, how much he had to love God’s children to suffer what he suffered for us. . . .
. . . The temple should strengthen our preparation to receive the gifts of his atoning love (see D&C 88:32, 33) and to follow his example.8
The temple experience may be the epitome of atonement work on the earth. Not only do the ordinances point to the atonement of Christ, not only do the ordinances depend on the atonement for their power and efficacy, but also the overwhelming majority of the ordinances that take place in the temple are performed by people who are functioning as saviors themselves, “saviours . . . on mount Zion” (Obad. 1:21).
“A Symbolic Linkage”
Speaking of ordinances in general, Latter-day Saint author Lenet Hadley Read has written: “Every revealed ordinance exhibits a symbolic linkage to one element or another of Jesus’ ministry. For example, just as the daily sacrifices of Jerusalem’s temple foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice (Heb. 7:26–28), so Latter-day Saints see gospel ordinances as pointing to him and to the way back into his presence.”9
The ordinances of the gospel are marvelous blessings to help us progress along the strait and narrow path to eternal life. They also point us toward Christ and his atonement, both overtly and through divine symbolism. Without the ordinances we would not be able to return to the Father. Without Christ the ordinances would have no efficacy. Elder George F. Richards, a longtime president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said: “We realize that there is no virtue for salvation and exaltation outside of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, our Savior. . . . The ordinances of the Gospel have virtue in them by reason of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, and without it there would be no virtue in them for salvation.”10
How grateful we are for the gift of the ordinances—and for the power of the atonement of our Savior that gives them “virtue.”
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