What Is the Significance of the Phrase “a Tabernacle of Clay?”

Before casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, God explained to them how their lives would change. Eve would bring forth children in sorrow. (As Lehi explained to his sons, Adam and Eve were not capable of bearing children before this time: 2 Nephi 2:22-23.) Adam and Eve would now have to labor for their sustenance. And one day, the ultimate consequence of partaking the forbidden fruit would happen: they would die. As God declared to Adam: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19).

In our daily lives, it’s easy to forget how fragile we really are. Occasional experiences remind us of our mortality, but for some reason, our brains are programmed to forget our vulnerability most of the time.

But remembering our limitations can help us to be humble. Isaiah pleaded for mercy by acknowledging the dependence of his people on the Lord: “O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand” (Isaiah 64:8). And the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the children of Israel on behalf of the Lord using the same metaphor: “Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6). (See also Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 45:9, Job 13:12, Job 33:6).

The angel who delivered good news to King Benjamin described the Savior both in terms of His immortality and in terms of His mortality as the son of Mary:

  • Immortality – “The Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity…”
  • Mortality – “…shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay” (Mosiah 3:5).

Why did He have to take on a mortal body? I don’t know the answer, but it seems clear from the record that it was necessary. “To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world,” He said to Pilate (John 18:37). He felt a sense of mission connected with His mortal ministry. He knew that there were certain activities which He could only perform when clothed in a mortal body: a “tabernacle of flesh.”

And what of us? Elder Neal A. Maxwell testified that mortality is also essential for us:

We too, brothers and sisters, came “into the world” to pass through our particularized portions of the mortal experience. Even though our experiences do not even begin to approach our Master’s, nevertheless, to undergo this mortal experience is why we too are here! Purposefully pursuing this “cause” brings ultimate meaning to our mortal lives (“Apply the Atoning Blood of Christ,” General Conference, October 1997).

So it’s fitting that Mormon would use the same phrase as he encouraged his son to keep working hard, even as their society crumbled around them:

And now, my beloved son, notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God (Moroni 9:6).

Mortal life is hard. It was designed to be so. We are subject to pain, illness, fatigue, mental and emotional strain, loneliness, and other challenges. Our bodies are fragile and easily injured, our minds also. But there are things that we can only accomplish by passing through this mortal experience. Just as the Savior could only fulfill His mission by taking on a “tabernacle of clay,” we also have tasks that we can only complete while we are mortal.

Today, I will remember the Savior’s commitment to fulfilling the purposes of His mortal life. I will remember that I am also on this earth for a reason. I will look for my missions, and I will strive to fulfill them. I will remember, as Mormon told his son, that we all have “a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay.”

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