You should gain at least a basic understanding of some common gospel symbols found throughout the scriptures and in the temple. Like the parables that Christ taught, many symbols are ordinary everyday things but with special meaning in the gospel. Even common things like numbers and colors have symbolic significance.
Understanding symbols will help bring greater meaning to your temple worship and to the ordinances of the gospel. Pondering on their meaning can help you gain deeper insights into the purpose of the ordinance. The sacrament is a good example. The symbols are simple but as we partake, their implications are profound.
Below is a brief discussion of a few symbols that you may find helpful as you go to the temple. As we proceed, again, please keep two cautions in mind: First, nearly all symbols have multiple meanings. Please don’t limit the Lord’s use of them in teaching you. Just because you already understand one or more sets of meanings with a symbol doesn’t mean that there aren’t more. The summaries, which follow, are simply a good starting point. They are not comprehensive.
A second caution is to keep these things in perspective. While they can be very helpful in adding richness and depth to our worship, we shouldn’t get so focused on them that they become a giant game of gospel trivia. Nor should we get too frustrated by the things we don’t yet understand. The important part is not understanding every little nuance of every little symbol, but actually living the endowment in our lives. The most crucial parts are plain to all. Begin with your focus there and let the other things come along in time.
With those two cautions, let’s look at a few basic temple and scriptural symbols and their meanings:
Many colors have symbolic meaning. For example, the color white symbolizes purity, holiness, cleanliness, righteousness, light, glory, and unity. Green is a symbol of life. Purple a symbol of royalty or nobility. Blue suggests the heavens. Scarlet or red is a symbol of the blood of sacrifice.
Olive oil is a symbol of the Holy Ghost and its influence (see D&C 45:56-58). Olive trees were found in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the symbolism is therefore also tied to the Atonement and is also associated with revelation, healing, and consecration. The oil represents holy anointing by the power of the Spirit of God. The Apostle John wrote of God’s Spirit as an “anointing.” He declared, “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him” (1 John 2:27).
HORN OF SALVATION
Horns are symbols of strength, honor, and power. Animals possessing horns rely upon them as their primary means of defense and attack. Under the law of Moses, the horns of the altar of burnt offerings were to be smeared with the blood of sacrifice (see Exodus 29:12). Anciently, kings were anointed with oil from a horn (1 Samuel 16:1, 13). Christ is referred to as a “horn of salvation” (Luke 1:69) meaning that He is mighty to save.
Anciently, robes indicated status and were tied to a person’s identity. For example, in the story of the prodigal son we see this concept illustrated when the wayward son returns expecting to be a servant, but instead finding his position in the household restored by the simple act of his father bringing forth a robe and clothing him (see Luke 15:22).
Shoes were also part of a person’s identity and together with the feet symbolized the course of one’s life. The prodigal son received not only a robe, but also shoes from his father. John the Baptist indicated he was not worthy to unloose Christ’s shoes. Moses was told to remove his shoes because he was entering holy ground. He was about to receive a new calling and direction for his life, walking on a new path and leaving his old life behind. Paul also taught that our feet should be shod with the gospel of peace as part of our spiritual armor (see Ephesians 6:15).
The serpent is another symbol with both positive and negative connotations. Originally, it was a symbol of Christ (see Helaman 8:14-15). Satan usurped this symbol in Eden in an attempt to play God and deceive Adam and Eve, and since then it has often been associated with him instead. Perhaps it seems odd that a serpent can symbolize Christ, but it is apt since a serpent’s fangs can bring death, but a serpent can also shed its skin in a symbolic resurrection to new life. Thus a serpent is a symbol of both life and death. Christ is the God of both life and death. He established the conditions for mortality and our eventual death, but He also brought about the Resurrection and our immortality. Moses used a brazen serpent as a symbol of Christ while in the wilderness with the Israelites (see Numbers 21:8-9; Helaman 8:14-15).
This is an excerpt from “Preparing For Your Endowment” by Cory B. Jensen. Using entertaining stories and insightful teachings from the scriptures, “Preparing for Your Endowment” helps teens and young adults replace their fears and questions about the temple with the faith and confidence necessary to make and keep eternal covenants and to experience all the blessings of temple worship. It is available here.