Interpreting Ezekiel’s Temple Vision

ezekielstempleWhen Christians discuss OT eschatological prophecy, eventually attention will have to be turned toward the vision of Ezekiel’s temple as recorded in chapters 40-48 of the prophet’s book.

Those nine chapters contain some of the most detailed descriptions in the form of blue-print-like schematics of a massive temple.  Ezekiel is told he is to “describe the temple to the house of Israel…Its entire design and all its ordinances, and perform them.” (Ezekiel 43:10-12).

The question for biblical interpreters is how to understand the fulfillment of the vision. Is Ezekiel’s temple to be a real, physical building erected in the land of Israel? Or is the vision meant to be understood symbolically and typologically? For those who believe the temple is a physical building, when exactly was the prophecy fulfilled? No temple like it ever existed in Israel’s history.  Moreover, if the temple’s construction remains to be accomplished sometime in the future, how is the discussion of animal sacrifices explained in light of Christ’s death that is said to have put an end to OT sacrifices?

For those who believe the vision is symbolic, how do they explain such extreme detail in measurement and procedure? As Lamar Cooper states in his commentary on Ezekiel,

The weakness of this approach is that it fails to account for the detailed descriptions of people, places, and events in the restored community… If these structures are only symbols of greater spiritual realities and nothing more, then such detail would be irrelevant. [Cooper, 352]

Nine chapters consisting of 260 verses of detailed architectural measurements and priestly function is a bit of overkill if the vision is merely symbolic.

The difficulty of interpreting Ezekiel’s temple vision isn’t limited to only Christian scholars. It has also been a problem with Jewish ones as well. Michael Brown notes that Talmudic rabbis believed the images of the visions were difficult enough that the prophet Elijah would have to come and explain them. [Brown, 171]  Medieval commentator, David Kimichi, notes Brown, interestingly finds proof of the resurrection in these chapters, because Ezekiel believed he and his contemporaries would one day, in the future, build this temple. Seeing that it was never completed, it must be accomplished sometime in the future and that would require a resurrected Ezekiel [ibid, 173].

Now, I’m of the opinion that even though Ezekiel’s final vision contains textual and theological difficulties any interpreter will have to work through. However, coming to the proper understanding of the vision isn’t an unattainable endeavor. There are at least three possible explanations for Ezekiel’s temple vision we could consider:

First is the symbolic interpretation.  This view has been the historical perspective of a number of Catholic and Protestant Reformed commentators over the years. “The vision symbolizes the church in it’s origin, development, influence and consequent completion in the hereafter…” [Freeman, 309].

Dr. Michael Brown argues for the spiritual view based upon a handful of reasons including the fact Ezekiel’s temple contradicts a lot of the descriptions in the Torah (Exodus/Leviticus/Numbers particularly) and the text suggests the prophecy will be fulfilled in Ezekiel’s lifetime (Ezekiel 40:4, 43:10,11), but wasn’t [Brown, 177].

Additionally, Ezekiel was a priest and the purpose of God showing him this vision was to convey the greatest sense of promise that the Lord’s presence would again dwell with His people in a glorious temple attended by a purified priest class who obediently served Him [ibid, 177, 178].  These images would have their fulfillment, then, in the coming of Israel’s true Messiah, Jesus Christ.

If we turn to the NT, we can see these images symbolically described in various passages. For instance, we read of Jesus using temple symbolism to describe His Resurrection (John 2:21).  The NT church, which is comprised of both saved Jews and gentiles, is likened by Paul to the “temple” in Ephesians 2:21,22 and 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17. Peter the apostle describes Christians as being a holy priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God (1 Peter 2:5). And John records in his Gospel the words of Jesus who proclaimed that those who believe in Him will have living waters flowing out of their hearts (John 7:37, 38), a reference to the healing springs of water that flow out from under the threshold of the temple Ezekiel sees in his vision (Ezekiel 47:1-8).

A second view is something of a hybrid literal-symbolic interpretation. Mark Rooker explains how with this view, the vision is understood to be early apocalyptic literature, [Rooker, 403]. It is designed to figuratively address the restoration of Israel to the land after the exile and the renewed worship they will experience.  The prophecy is merely fulfilled in part through the historical reconstruction of Herod’s temple, but the vision points to the great reality of Christ’s body and it’s completion in the future at the coming of Christ and in the New Jerusalem.

Then, the third view believes this vision describes a future, millennial temple that will be rebuilt. The prophecy will be fulfilled literally after the return of Christ with a physical building being built in the land of Israel and a renewed Zadokian priesthood reinstated.

The primary reason proponents of this view believe it will be a real, physical building is that the language of the text suggests it will be a real, physical building. Ezekiel is told directly by the revealing angel that he was to write down all that he saw in detail and proclaim it to the house of Israel, (40:4 and 43:10, 11). There is similar language from God to Moses when he told him to build the tabernacle in Exodus 25:9 and David’s words to his son Solomon in 1 Chronicles 28:19.  Historically, both the tabernacle and the temple were real, physical structures.

Additionally, as noted above, the architectural details of Ezekiel’s temple are precise measurements. Lengths of walls, courtyards, entry ways, and other structural designs are laid out by the angel and written down by Ezekiel. Moreover, a restored priesthood is described with the vestments they wear, along with the individuals who can serve in the temple, the sacrificial procedure they will perform for the people, and the calendar days those procedures will take place.

Nothing in the descriptions of the temple’s structure and the priestly function gives indication that it is only meant to be symbolic language describing a future “spiritual body” called the Church, or even some idealized restoration for Israel that merely gives them hope for the future, but isn’t meant to be fulfilled in any fashion.  Seeing that no temple has ever existed in Israel’s history, this temple must be a future reality that is yet to come and the only possible time it could be built is when Christ returns to establish His millennial kingdom.

Now, with those three main perspectives laid out, I believe the third view is the only one that makes sense of the text. However, there are some significant problems with taking this prophecy in a literal fashion that describes a future temple that will be rebuilt when Christ returns.  The most glaring problem has to do with the presence of animal sacrifices and other priestly rituals that take place within Ezekiel’s temple. The animal sacrifices are particularly problematic in light of Christ’s cross work and Him being the fulfillment of many of the OT sacrifices that atoned for sinners. The key objection against the literal view is simply: If Christ fulfilled the OT sacrifices and atoned once and for all for sinners, any animal sacrifices will be a return to the old covenant and diminishes what Christ did.

My objective will now be to lay out my case as to why animal sacrifices are not a regression toward the OT and why a real, physical temple will be rebuilt in the future.