Dr. Robert J. Matthews, associate professor of ancient scripture, Brigham Young University: Since the nature of man has not changed since the fall of Adam,1 it requires the same ordinances and powers of the gospel to save mankind at one time or another. Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ has been the same in every age of the world. The gospel with its ordinances was first revealed to Adam and was taught and practiced by the ancient saints at various times from Adam to the time of Jesus. Since the plan of salvation is older than this earth, there has been no difficulty in the Lord revealing the same ordinances and principles in every dispensation.2
The gospel that was taught to the ancients contained certain fundamental elements of the temple endowment, as is verified by the explanation to Figure 3, Facsimile No. 2, of the Book of Abraham. We are also told that the Lord has “always commanded” his people to build special houses for the administration of sacred ordinances. (See D&C 124:39–40.) Thus, ordinances that are now performed in the temple have been available to men and women living upon the earth whenever the gospel was preached and received among them. However, we understand that no ordinances were performed for the dead until after Jesus died and inaugurated the preaching of the gospel in the world of departed spirits.3 Thereafter, the Church in the meridian of time was privileged to perform the ordinances of the gospel not only for the living, as had been done in earlier dispensations, but also for the dead. This is partially evidenced by Paul’s reference to baptism for the dead. (See 1 Cor. 15:29.)
The temple ceremony pertains to exaltation and eternal life, and references in the New Testament show that the members of the Church at that time knew that. For example, Peter reminded the Saints that they had been given “all things that pertain unto life and godliness, … Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature. …” (2 Pet. 1:3–4.) Paul spoke of obtaining a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8), and of the saints becoming “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.” (Rom. 8:17.) And John wrote of the faithful becoming “kings and priests unto God” to “reign on the earth.” (Rev. 1:6; Rev. 5:10.) In the Church we recognize these as matters pertaining to the higher ordinances of the gospel that are administered in the temple.
That such things are mentioned repeatedly in the New Testament epistles is significant, because these epistles were not written for nonmembers but were of a regulatory nature directed to the branches of the Church. The manner in which these items are presented in the epistles, without explanation, is indicative that the persons to whom the epistles were written were already familiar with the doctrines. Consequently, those in the Church today who are familiar with temple ordinances can understand from these epistles that the saints in the New Testament times had the same temple blessings and ordinances.
President Heber C. Kimball taught that the temple endowment that is in the Church in this dispensation is the same in principle as it was in the ancient Church. He further noted that Jesus “was the one that inducted his Apostles into these ordinances.”4 President Joseph Fielding Smith stated that it was his belief that Peter, James, and John received their endowments on the Mount of Transfiguration.5 Since they were instructed not to tell of the occurrences on the Mount until after Jesus was “risen again from the dead” (Matt. 17:9), it appears that similar blessings were not given to the other members of the Twelve, or to the Church, until after the Savior’s resurrection. Furthermore, there is a strong suggestion from apocryphal sources that the 40-day post-resurrection ministry of Jesus consisted in part of the establishment of a sacred ritual among the disciples.6 The scriptures are quite silent concerning the details of this, but Luke identifies it as a time in which Jesus was “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3.)
Although today we refer to these sacred items as “temple” ordinances, they could be administered in other locations under certain circumstances if no temple were available. This principle is alluded to in Doctrine and Covenants 124:28–31. [D&C 124:28–31] High mountains and other places have served as holy sites until a temple could be constructed.7 As a consequence, at one period of time baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi River at Nauvoo;8 and endowments were given on Ensign Peak at the north edge of the Salt Lake Valley.9 Likewise an endowment house was erected in the northwest corner of Temple Square and used until the Salt Lake Temple was built.10 Since the temple in Jerusalem was in the hands of the apostate Jewish rulers, it is certain that these special ordinances were performed in other places by the Church in New Testament times.