Temple Fire and Temple Worship

On Wednesday evening, 9 July 2003 the Apia Samoa Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was destroyed by fire. The temple had been closed since early spring and was being renovated and enlarged and was scheduled to be rededicated in October. The cause of the blaze is believed to be related to the construction project. The temple itself is described as being on a campus that has a church service centre as well as an LDS chapel, temple housing units, and a mission home close by. This, then, simply in material terms, is a great loss. When you realise that this happened even as local leaders were spending long hours planning the rededication of the renovated temple the spiritual and emotional loss becomes apparent. This meant a lot to people.

The Mormon Meridan magazine reported,

“Not since an arson set fire to the Nauvoo Temple in 1848 has a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints been ravaged and decimated by fire. We have the sense, in fact, that our temples are protected from such disaster, but Wednesday evening 9 July 2003 at about 7:00 the Apia Samoa Temple burst into flames much to the horror of those who looked on.”

Certainly, with almost 130 temples operating around the world, and their history of temple building going back to the earliest days of the church, it must seem to the faithful that these buildings are protected. One feature of this fire is the survival of the angel, Moroni, atop the temple spire.

One LDS observer told how onlookers watched and prayed as the flames inched their way towards the statue of Moroni.

“The members’ greatest hope, when it became clear there would be nothing left of the temple, was that the angel Moroni would stand tall at the end of the night.”

People pleaded that the statue of Moroni would not leave them. He said that his heart was warmed the next day as he drove past the shell of the temple and saw that Moroni was still there.

My sympathies go to those who feel the loss of this building and symbol of their faith, however I cannot help but reflect on the words of Jesus regarding temple worship.

“Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings, ‘Do you see these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Matthew 24:1-2)

Why did Jesus speak of the destruction of the temple? Because “one greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6)

The temple gave people access to a God who was unapproachable and who, while dwelling among them, was separate from them because of his holiness and their sinfulness. (Exodus 26:33) The priesthood served the people in sympathising with their weaknesses and representing them before a Holy God. (Hebrews 5:1-3) But when the perfect, once for all sacrifice was made the curtain separating men from God was torn in two, (Mark 15:37-38) symbolising the bringing down of the barrier that caused that separation, sin. When Jesus said, “one greater than the temple is here” , he spoke, amongst other things, of a better means of approaching God, whose role as both High Priest and sacrifice of the New Covenant guaranteed access to God to all who believe.

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

In the “restoration” temples of Mormonism the curtain has been restored, restrictions have been re-imposed, access has been limited again and God once more locked up in what they regard as a holy dwelling place. I am reminded of the little boy in the story of the last Emperor. Locked behind palace walls, steeped in the culture and lore of former generations, he catches a glimpse of his people and their twentieth century living and runs to be with them. His retainers block his access to the people and insist that his place is where they choose to put him – hidden away in the past. His people cannot come to him and he cannot go to them.

But we read in Scripture that,

“He [Jesus] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Therefore, since we have been fully justified through faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 4:25-5:1)

Notice that our peace comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the one who is greater than the temple. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. “Both” in this text means both Jews and gentiles, i.e. temple worship afforded access to Jews through priesthood, ceremony and sacrifice, the Cross affords access to Jews and gentiles through Christ, one who is greater than the temple.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on a foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself the chief cornerstone. (What sort of building is this that Paul refers to?) In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. (So God does have a temple!) And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

The letter to the Hebrews describes the change from the Old Covenant to the New; the temporary to the permanent; the earthly to the heavenly:

“The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.

“By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and ageing will soon disappear.”

Worship in the Earthly Tabernacle

“Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now.

“When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still standing. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.”

The Blood of Christ

When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance… (Hebrews 8:8-15)

The writer goes on to explain that the earthly tabernacle (on which Mormons claim to model their own temples) was merely a copy of heavenly things:

It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:23-28)

This copy of heavenly things, this man made sanctuary, with its regulations for worship is what the Mormons are proud to have “restored”. The irony is Scripture makes clear that external regulations (washings and anointings etc.) apply only until the time of the new order, which new order was ushered in by Jesus, the mediator of this new covenant.

In Matthew’s gospel we have already read of how impressed the disciples were with the temple, calling Jesus’ attention to it. Mormons, also, are impressed with their temples and call the world’s attention to them. “‘Do you see these things?’he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Matthew 24:1-2)

Peter reminds us:

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (N.B. This is the temple of God)

“For in Scripture it says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone, ‘ and, ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.” (1 Peter 2:4-8)

God has established his covenant, he has laid the cornerstone of his temple and it rises under his instruction, built of living stones. Those who reject this work, and seek to establish another, will stumble and fall.

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