Studies in Ezekiel’s Temple Vision

ezekiel

I posted these articles a few years ago when I was doing my study on eschatology.

Since I wrote them, they have become some of my most read posts that draws some of the biggest traffic to my otherwise small, obscure blog. The one thing I failed to do, and should have, because I was short sighted as to how popular they would be, is post them in one article for easy access. Rather than having to find all 6 via the link tags, here they all are in one place for easy availability.

I would encourage folks to read them in order from start to last, because they build upon themselves as I get to the thorny question as to a real, historic and future temple where animal sacrifices will function and how that relates to the work of Christ on the cross.

Resources on Ezekiel’s Temple Vision

Interpreting Ezekiel’s Temple Vision

Literally Reading Ezekiel 40-48

Animal Sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48

Ezekiel’s Temple Sacrifices and Hebrews

Answering Objections to Ezekiel’s Temple Sacrifice

Answering Objections to Ezekiel’s Temple Sacrifices

ezekielsanctuaryOne of the important matters I wanted to address with my series on Ezekiel’s temple is that of hermeneutics and their application in the interpretation of prophetic passages like Ezekiel 40-48.  I certainly acknowledge there are difficulties for my literal take on those chapters. However, there are also some profound difficulties for Reformed covenant folks who utilize a non-literal, more spiritualized view of the Ezekiel’s temple.

Because my literal hermeneutics place my theology in a position of criticism in what I would consider important matters of atonement, Christ’s cross work, and human salvation, I think it is necessary to demonstrate internal, theological and orthodox consistency with my literalism. Hopefully I have shown that to some degree, though I am sure there are blind spots I have overlooked.

With that in mind, I wanted to offer some quick responses to the various objections and questions I have encountered before and during my writing of my series.

I want to zero in on the ones I hear most repeated, as well as a few that may be considered debunkers of my view. I realize there may be some that I may overlook, so this is where I open up the comments to hear from readers who have been waiting eagerly to challenge me.

I definitely welcome those challenges, and if any are significant, I will try and add them to the main body of this post in an updated fashion with my response. I also realize there may be individuals who wander over to this post because they did a search on “Ezekiel’s temple” and was linked to me. I welcome your questions and challenges to.

I only ask one thing of you: Please take the time to read the series in it’s entirety and engage the arguments I have presented. I archived the articles under a specific tag so you can read them as a stand alone series. See here:

Ezekiel’s Temple

Oldest articles are at the bottom, so scroll down.

Now I know for a lot of folks, that request may be deflected out into the black hole of your mind, but if you take the time to read my articles before hand (carefully and with thoughtfulness), it will help eliminate any misunderstandings and covering old ground that has already been explained and answered.

Objections will be in bold blue, my responses will follow.

To push Ezekiel’s picture into some future era is to destroy the atoning work of our Savior on the cross.

As I have attempted to point out in my articles, there are significant, functional differences between what Christ did on the cross and the worship ceremonies that will be performed within Ezekiel’s temple.

I go into more detail with those differences in my articles, but the main distinction hinges upon the grammatical, contextual usage of “atonement” and to what “atonement” is applied. Whereas typically, any atonement made was designed to cleanse and purify objects and people from external, ritual impurity, the atonement Christ made on behalf of sinners cleanses and purifies people internally from their guilty consciences and sin against God (Hebrews 10:2,3).  Animal sacrifices could never perform such a work. That is the distinction I believe many opposed to my viewpoint on Ezekiel’s temple fail to take into consideration.

Isn’t any kind of use of animal sacrifice in worship a return to the Mosaic law and Judaism?

No. Opponents of a future, literal fulfillment of Ezekiel’s temple vision exaggerate the nature of those animal sacrifices. This is especially true of my Reformed brethren who seem to think any mention of an animal sacrifice automatically equates Moses, the 10 Commandments, the book of Leviticus, works righteousness, etc.

Again, as I have noted, the sacrifices offered in Ezekiel’s temple have a different purpose and function than what Christ did on the cross. Additionally, because many of the key Levitical elements are missing in Ezekiel’s temple, particularly the ceremony of the Day of Atonement and the Mercy Seat (Ark of the Covenant), it is clear that what is happening in Ezekiel’s temple is not a return to Moses and the OT law.

The idea of animal sacrifices in worship is just odd in light of what Christ did and the enactment of the New Covenant. 

I can understand that objection. We folks in the modern world who have been immersed among talking Disney animals for a couple of generations and who sleep with our pets would find animal sacrifices a strange ordinance or ritual to perform. Let me offer my thoughts on the matter in a bullet format:

  • First off, that is our modern mind informing us, not Scripture. 
  • There is nothing biblically objectionable to using animals in a worship ceremony especially in the manner Ezekiel revealed. They don’t “replace” Christ.
  • The ceremony is performed by an identifiable, specialized priest class who serve in the temple. 
  • The ceremony as outlined in Ezekiel’s description seems to be limited to the people of Israel who live in the land surrounding the temple complex. In other words, the ceremonies are not performed by every living person in the world at the time.
  • Most significantly, other prophets saw the use of sacrifices (animals included) in worship for future Israel (Isaiah 19:21; 56:7; 60:7; 66:20-23; Jeremiah 33:18; Zechariah 14:16-21 to name a few).

How is this theologically different from Romanist reenactments of Christ’s sacrifice in their mass?

The immediate problem with this objection is that it assumes the sacrifices in Ezekiel are the same in substance and purpose as the Catholic mass.  Whereas the mass is meant to be efficacious, in the sense that it is believed the real presence of Christ is literally in the elements and partaking of those elements imparts enabling grace to the person so he or she can work out personal justification, the sacrifices of Ezekiel are designed to externally purify the temple complex and the Jewish participants ministering in the temple. The Catholic mass is believed to genuinely impart some internal change to the participant, whereas the temple sacrifices are external effecting only the temple and the ministers’ outward impurity.

Ultimately it comes down to recognizing what the Bible teaches regarding the OT atonement and what was accomplished by Christ on the cross. Though there are similarities, they are not one and the same in design and purpose.

How is the OT sacrifice of animals again in the future an improvement on Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross?

They are not an “improvement” on Christ’s sacrifice, nor are the intended to be. As I have argued, there are really only two instances mentioned in Ezekiel of animals being sacrificed, 43:20, 26 and 45:15,17, 20.

In chapter 43, I pointed out that the sacrifice is made at the consecration of the altar in the temple. This sacrifice is not made on behalf of people, but is designed to cleanse the altar from impurity and setting it apart for worship of God whose presence will take up residence in the temple.

Additionally, it is noted that this sacrifice in chapter 43 appears to be a one time event, perhaps at the beginning of the millennium. Even if it is repeated annually, it is not a duplication of, or a replacement of, what Christ did on the cross, but is meant specifically to cleanse the temple of ritual impurity so as to minister along with the presence of God.

The next instance in chapter 45 are animal sacrifices being made on behalf of a specific group of individuals, that being what is called “the house of Israel.” I take that to mean those Jews living in the allotted land within Israel in which the millennial temple complex is situated. In other words, those sacrifices cleansed the people from external impurity so that God can dwell with them in the land.

Neither one of those instances have anything to do with Christ’s death on the cross nor are they salvific in the same fashion as Christ’s atonement.

Ezekiel’s temple is where the Lord will dwell with Israel forever (43:6-7). Does a literal 1000 years equate “forever?”

The funny thing about this question is that I know it is asked by an virulent non-premillennialist. He believes he has found an unsolvable “discrepancy” with my position in that the concept of 1,000 years does not equate the concept of “forever” or “eternal.”

In response, I can begin by pointing out an inconsistency with his position. While he may think he has found a glaring problem with my take on Ezekiel’s temple, he still chooses to ignore other references of “forever” as it pertains to Israel’s promise to the physical land of Canaan. Say for instance, Genesis 13:15, Exodus 32:13, 2 Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 60:21 to mention a few. So, if “forever” means uninterrupted in the case of Ezekiel 43:6-7, why doesn’t “forever” mean the same thing with the land promises as noted in those other passages?

We know for a fact those promises didn’t “remain forever” at least at the time God spoke them. So the non-literalist, as my critic calls himself, is forced to engage in exegetical Jedi mind-tricks in order to wiggle around the implications those land promises have for his hermeneutics.

He then either, A) re-defines “land” to be expanded to the whole world or cosmos, or B) claims the promises were contingent upon Israel’s faithful obedience to the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendents (i.e. Israel), which we know Israel failed with keeping, or C) he changes the meaning of “forever” in those other instances that don’t fit his particular hermeneutical paradigm.

Secondly, he fails to consider that future premillennialists teach that the millennium is the consummation of this age and the eternal state will follow immediately after the final judgment. God does dwell with His people “forever” just like Ezekiel states, because there won’t be any interruption between Christ’s return, the millennial reign, and the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Ezekiel’s prophecy suggests he expected that temple to be built once the exiles returned to the land of Israel in 536 B.C., but it wasn’t built. Why the 2,000 plus year “gap” with the prophetic fulfillment?

There is no more a “problem” with that postponement than there is with Christ’s Second Coming postponed for 2,000 plus years. Reading the NT, there are indicators that suggest that the apostles and early Christians expected Christ to return within their life time. But He didn’t.  Christ Himself realized the postponement of His earthly kingdom would be confusing, hence the reason He responded to the disciples’ question about restoring Israel by saying “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:6,7).

Because other prophetic texts speak of nations worshiping God at a “sanctuary” in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:16ff., for instance), and it is tied to the coming of Messiah, I can understand how Ezekiel’s temple is related to the return of Christ and His reign over all the earth with absolute authority.

Ezekiel’s Temple Sacrifices and Hebrews

atonementI had argued in my previous article that our understanding of the “animal sacrifices” in Ezekiel 40-48 hinges on a precise definition of what is meant by atonement and sin offerings.

The word atonement, depending upon the context, can have the meaning of wiping away or purging. Additionally, the atonement is made on behalf of a person or an indirect object and may really have nothing to do with moral sin or placating God’s wrath against sinners.

In the case of Ezekiel, the animal sacrifices “make atonement” first for the altar in the temple, and then for the people of Israel who will serve in that temple. In the context, the atonement effects external impurity, wiping away defilement and consecrating both the altar and the people to serve in the presence of the LORD who will take up residence in the temple.

The sin offerings have a similar idea. First, they are not offerings made for moral sin. In fact, “sin offerings” is an inaccurate translation. The better understanding of the phrase is one of purification. So rather, this is a purification offering. And secondly, these purification offerings work in a similar way the atonement did in that they purify objects and people for service before a Holy God.

How then do these sacrifices fit with the idea of Ezekiel’s millennial temple?

As a premillennialist, I understand that the Bible teaches that the millennium is an intermediary period of time between this current age and the eternal age to come (Isaiah 24, 25, 65, Zechariah 14) during which Jesus Christ reigns on earth for 1,000 years in a restored nation of Israel. To get a more formal overview, I refer you to this previous post HERE.

When I search Scripture and harmonize the various prophetic passages in the OT that speak to the conditions that will be present in that millennium, I notice a number of things.

1) Though Satan is bound and his influence restrained on the earth, the effects of the fall is still presence to a degree. Specifically, men will still die naturally.
2) Non-resurrected humanity will dwell with resurrected humanity.
3) The nations will be required to come to Jerusalem to worship God, presumably at the temple complex prophesied by Ezekiel (Zechariah 14:16-21).
4) Ezekiel’s temple will be built and God’s presence will take up residence there.
5) The people of Israel will have a role in leading the worship on behalf of those gentile nations that come to the land of Israel and the temple.

With those items in mind, the animal sacrifices and purification offerings, rather than atoning for man’s law-breaking and moral sin, serve as a means to purify the altar, the priests who serve in the temple, and the people of Israel who also live in the land and regularly participate in the worship of the LORD with those nations that come per Zech. 14:16ff.

What is in view is external ritual purification, not internal, spiritual purification.  During the millennium, God will dwell among His people who still live on a fallen world, albeit, the impact of the fall is greatly restrained. His restored people of Israel, who will be tasked to serve in this temple, also live in that fallen world, as well as among an earthly population of fallen humanity.  The purpose of the animal sacrifices, then, will be to cleanse the temple from any impurity that could be brought in, as well as keep the people who serve in the temple from defiling it.

That is how the animal sacrifices in Ezekiel differ from the sacrifice of Christ as taught in Hebrews. In chapters 9 and 10, the author of Hebrews does an exposition on the work Christ did on the cross on behalf of his people. The author zeroes in upon the sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement as explained in Leviticus 16, and contrasts it with Christ’s atonement on the cross.

The Day of Atonement was the most critical holy day for Israel. It was that one day of the year on which the high priest came into the Holy of Holies within the tabernacle and made atonement for the entire nation of Israel. The blood of a slain goat was sprinkled by the high priest on the Ark of the Covenant and then he laid his hands upon the scapegoat that was released into the wilderness, symbolically picturing the taking away of Israel’s sins.

So with that ritual, we have presented for us the dual role of atonement where a substitute dies on behalf of the people’s sin and their sin is taken away.  The Day of Atonement cleansed the people of Israel from their moral impurity and God could continue to dwell with them until the next year when the process would be repeated.

The author of Hebrews contrasts the sacrifice made on the Day of Atonement with that of Christ on the cross. There are some significant distinctions:

1) The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement was made with an animal on behalf of people, whereas Christ, the perfect man, died on behalf of men. Only a man can be a fitting substitute for men who are created in the image of God.

2) The animal sacrifices could only provide atonement for the externals in the ceremony (Heb. 9:13,14), whereas Christ, because of who He was, could cleanse the internal, spiritual heart of men. Only Christ’s work can cleanse the conscience.

3) The high priest had to offer a sacrifice for himself before he went into the sanctuary to offer the atonement for the nation (Heb. 9:25, 26), whereas Christ could go into the sanctuary by His own blood. He was sinless, and thus needed no atonement made for Him.

4) The Day of Atonement was repeated every year, whereas what Christ did was once and for all (Heb. 10:2-4). His work put an end to animal sacrifices for the sake of man’s sin and guilty conscience.

5) By His death Jesus ratified the New Covenant that extends to all people of the earth that they too can have their sins forgiven and their hearts made new. Additionally, because of the work of Christ, the New Covenant has the force to write God’s laws upon the hearts of the people in that covenant (Heb. 10:16-18).

There are a number of differences between Christ’s fulfillment of the Day of the Atonement as explained by the author of Hebrews and the worship ceremonies found in Ezekiel 40-48, but the most obvious is that there isn’t any Day of Atonement mentioned by Ezekiel.  I believe the main reason is due to the fact Christ fulfilled and completed that ceremony once and for all and there is no longer a need for it.

Thus, the animal sacrifices spoken about in Ezekiel are of an entirely different nature than what Christ did on the cross.  Utilizing specified animals within the worship ceremonies of a restored Israel during the millennial kingdom is not a retrogression back to the Mosaic covenant. They are simply appointed for the purpose of cleansing from external defilement and nothing more as the people of Israel fulfill their role of leading the world in worship of God.

Now. With my next post, I’ll outline the standard objections and arguments against my position and provide a response. I’ll also open comments to readers so I can hear from them.

Animal Sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48

animalsacrificeThe first entry in this series on Ezekiel’s temple outlined the three major interpretations of Ezekiel 40-48. The second one explained why I believe the chapters are describing a real, historical temple that will be built in a future, millennial kingdom where Christ reigns over all the earth out of Jerusalem.

With this post, I want to turn our attention toward addressing what Old Testament scholar, O.T. Allis says is the “Achilles heel” of a literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple and that is the descriptions of animal sacrifices taking place in that temple.

In fact, according to the critics of a literal interpretation of Ezekiel’s temple, if the mention of animal sacrifices are interpreted literally, then it will be a diminishing of Christ’s work on the cross and a complete return to the Mosaic system of worship.  Citing Allis again he writes that a “literal” interpretation (tied to Dispensationalism in his critique), inevitably “…represents a turning back from the glory of the Gospel to those typical rites and ceremonies which prepared the way for it, and have served that necessary purpose have lost forever their validity and propriety” [Allis, 248].

Jerry Hullinger summarizes the charges against the literal interpretation as,

  1. The whole Mosaic sacrificial system is to be reinstituted.
  2. The work of Christ on the cross is dishonored, especially in light of the epistle to the Hebrews.
  3. Those two positions are inevitable when one approaches Ezekiel 40-48 with a literal hermeneutic [Hullinger, 4,5].

Now, the typical response by those who believe Ezekiel’s temple is to be interpreted literally is to say those temple sacrifices are memorial in nature only, and in no way are meant to replace what Jesus did on the cross or reinstate the Mosaic sacrificial system. That is the position of a number of commentators on Ezekiel including Ralph Alexander, Charles Feinberg, Leon Wood, and Alva McClain to name a few.

There are basically two lines of argument made in defense of the memorial view:

First, it is argued the temple sacrifices are parallel to the Lord’s Supper.  In the same way Christians see the Lord’s Table looking back on the cross work of Jesus, so too the animal sacrifices will function in the same symbolic fashion during the millennium. Charles Feinberg, a proponent of the memorial view, writes,

Just as the Old Testament sacrifices could have value in pointing forward to the death of Christ, why may the not have equal value in pointing back to the death of Christ as an accomplished fact? The celebration of the Lord’s Supper through the Christian centuries has added not one infinitesimal particle to the efficacy of the work of Christ on the cross [Feinberg, 234].

Secondly, it is claimed that OT sacrifices were typological to begin with, pointing forward to Christ and were never intended to be efficacious. So in the same way those OT sacrifices looked forward to the ultimate fulfillment in Christ, the temple sacrifices look backward to the accomplishment of Christ.

Though the memorial view appears to be a valid solution for the idea of animal sacrifices in the millennial temple, I believe it has a couple of problems.

First, the text of Ezekiel says these offerings “make atonement.” Critics of a literal interpretation are right when they point out the language of Ezekiel makes it clear that those offerings atone. The words “memorial” and “in remembrance” are never used, unlike Christ’s words regarding the Last Supper when the New Covenant was inaugurated, (Luke 22:19, 1 Cor. 11:24, 25).

Second, there was much more to the Mosaic sacrifices than them merely pointing to Christ. They did have a religious function, primarily to keep God’s people, Israel, holy so that He could dwell among them. The significance of the OT sacrifices can be seen, for instances, in 1 Samuel 2 where Eli’s two wicked sons, Hophni and Pinehas, caused the people to sin with their abuse of the sacrificial offerings, (1 Samuel 2:12-17; 23-25) Eventually, God judged them for their abuse of the sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:34-36; 4:11).

So, if animal sacrifices are not memorial in nature and have some ritualistic value, how then are they to be explained in a millennial temple?

To begin, I’ll point out a couple textual and theological observation with this post, and expand upon them more with the next.

First, critics of a literal interpretation will exaggerate the nature and purpose of the animal sacrifices. They will claim any animal sacrifices would be a complete, whole-sale return to the Levitical/Mosaic sacrificial system if those sacrifices in Ezekiel’s temple are real, literal sacrificial offerings. But that is an erroneous conclusion.

It is obvious there are some similarities between the Levitical/Mosaic ordinances and Ezekiel’s temple worship. For example, there is a temple (of course), priests, the sacrifices in question, and feast days.  However, there are some significant differences.  Hobart Freeman points out those differences when he writes,

There is no mention of an ark of the covenant, golden lampstand, table of shewbread, and veil. The Passover and Feast of Tabernacles are observed, but Pentecost is omitted. While the five classes of sacrifices and offerings are cited, the central Levitical sacrifice, the Day of Atonement together with the sprinkling of the blood upon the mercy seat of the ark by the high priest, which was the most vital element in the Levitical system, is evidence that the millennial practices are not the reinstitution of Judaism [Freeman, 315].

Those differences are extremely profound, especially the absence of the ark of the covenant, the high priest, and the Day of Atonement.  That particular day and those particular elements were an important part of Israel’s covenant worship.  The writer of Hebrews referenced all of those items in the contrast made between the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement and Christ’s finished work as related in Hebrews 9 and implies that what it all represented was fulfilled in Christ and no longer applicable in the NC. That indicates that the atonement Jesus  made on behalf of His elect people is of an entirely different nature and purpose than the “atonement” made in Ezekiel’s temple.

Second, in Ezekiel 40-48, “atonement” is mentioned a total of 5 times, Ezekiel 43:20, 26 and 45:15,17, and 20.

Considering those two sections, the mention of atonement in Ezekiel 43 speaks of the atonement being made for the altar. It isn’t made on behalf of people. Moreover, that “atonement” appears to be a one time event, and is perhaps a ritual that is not repeated. In other words, it was made once to consecrate the altar for continued use. Only the mention of “atonement” in chapter 45 is spoken of being made for “them” meaning the people of Israel.

Though the discussion of “atonement” is mentioned merely 5 times in Ezekiel 40-48, “sin offering” is mentioned 14 times. 40:39; 42:13; 43:19,21,22,25; 44:27,29; 45:17,19,22,23,25: and 46:20. The question then is what is meant by “sin offering” and how is it understood in our understanding of “atonement,” animal sacrifices, and Ezekiel’s temple?

To answer that, it is important to define our terminology accurately. As a staunch, five point Calvinist, my definition of “atonement” has traditionally been the view articulated by a number of key, Reformed theologians.  Leon Morris is one of the more popular proponents of the typical Reformed view of atonement. In his masterful work, “The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross,” he defines atonement as the averting of punishment, or the turning away of divine wrath by the payment of a ransom, who in the case of humanity, would be Jesus Christ. This is called a “propitiation.”

Though it is true that “propitiation” as Reformed commentators define it is present in the act of making atonement, it would be a mistake to limit the concept of atonement to such a narrow definition. Propitiation is just one facet of the use of atonement in the whole of Scripture and depending upon syntax and context, “atonement” can also have the meaning of wiping away or purging. Jerry Hullinger explains that definition this way,

One support for the meaning of “wipe away” is that in Leviticus God is never the direct object of the atoning act. In nearly fifty references to atonement (kippur) … the object toward which the atonement is made is either a person (though indirectly) or an inanimate object. Thus it would seem that the act of atonement does something to the person or object rather than to God. [Hullinger, 43,44].

He adds this thought in a footnote,

Obviously sin and uncleanness are inimical to Yahweh, and in this sense He is a causative factor in atonement and thus needs to be propitiated. However, this is only an effect of atonement, while the “atoning” is doing something to the object, namely cleansing it, or taking away the offense. [ibid, 44 (fn.13)]

Next is the “sin offering.” Like the definition of “atonement,” the “sin offering” also has inaccurate misconceptions tied to it, primarily due in part to the English translations, namely, that the offering is made to take away moral sin. But a better understanding of “sin offering” is “purification” or “purgation offering.” That is because in a number of OT contexts where the “sin offering” is made, it is unlikely that “sin” is even present. For instance, in Leviticus 12:6,7 a new mother makes a “sin offering” for herself after the birth of a new child.

Rather than there being an offering for sin committed, the “sin offering” is designed to cleanse the tabernacle, the instruments used in worship, and individuals from any unintentional mistakes or unavoidable uncleanliness from contamination, say for instance a dead body or in the case of the new mother, giving birth.

Now. How exactly does all of that tie to Ezekiel’s temple and the animal sacrifices in the millennium? I’ll develop that in the next post on this subject.

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Sources

Literally Reading Ezekiel 40-48

templeAs I noted in my first post on the subject of Ezekiel’s temple, Christian interpreters are divided as to how we should understand Ezekiel’s prophetic visions. This is especially true regarding his vision of a temple in chapters 40-48.

Just to review:

There are typically three perspectives advanced by biblical interpreters as to how we should read Ezekiel’s temple vision. First is a symbolic/typological approach that believes the vision speaks to the final work of Christ and spiritual promises fulfilled in the NT church. Second is an idealized view of the prophecy that sees some aspects of the vision as being literal, but with the understanding that those “literal” elements speak to a greater spiritual reality which is fulfilled with God’s presence dwelling with the NT church. And then finally, the third view sees the vision telling of prophetic events that will be fulfilled in the future at the return of Jesus Christ when He establishes His millennial reign on the earth.

Those handful of divergent conclusions regarding Ezekiel’s temple reveal the impact one’s hermeneutics has upon interpreting prophetic literature as a whole.  I pointed out at the beginning of my series on eschatology (a long time ago now) that the principles of biblical interpretation a person brings to bear upon prophetic texts play a pivotal roll on how the passages in question will be interpreted and the theology one will derive from them.

But, as Jerry Hullinger notes: “…[T]he question is not really an issue of a strictly literal versus a strictly symbolic approach, because even the most extreme literalist takes some things as symbolic. And conversely, even the most stringent symbolist interprets some things as literal. The issue is a relative one involving the question as to which parts are to be taken in a given way” [Hullinger, 28, fn.29].

So in other words, those who treat the prophecy as literal do not dismiss that there exists some symbolism within the passage and those who view it as more spiritual do not dismiss the literal aspects. The question is: where is the literal/symbolic found and how are we to understand them as students of Scripture?

I take the prophecy of Ezekiel’s temple to be “literal.” Meaning, I believe Ezekiel is describing a real temple that is to be built and will function as a national worship center, not only for a restored Israel, but also for the entire world. Because the temple Ezekiel describes in scrutinizing detail has never been built, I believe the prophecy pertains to yet a future time. That future time, I believe, can only be the millennium in which Jesus Christ will reign for a thousand years from Jerusalem.

Now, just so I am clear. I don’t mean I read Ezekiel’s prophecy “literally” at the exclusion of recognizing any symbolic language that may be found in the text. When I say I take Ezekiel’s temple prophecy “literally,” I have in mind the idea that I take every word in its primary and ordinary meaning unless the exegesis of the text demands I understand those words differently.  Hence, any symbolism will be identifiable within the context as one studies the text.

I should also add that even though the prophet may at times paint symbolic word pictures with his use of language, those “pictures” still represents something that will really and tangibly come to pass.  For instance, Ezekiel 37 describes a valley of dry bones supernaturally coming to life. While I recognize that such a vivid image is symbolic, the image pictures something that will certainly happen, that being, the supernatural restoration of Israel to the promised land.

One further point. I don’t believe that because the book of Ezekiel is recognized as “prophetic literature” I, as an interpreter, am automatically required by default to interpret the book typologically and symbolically just because it’s “prophetic literature.” Again, while I recognize that symbolism is indeed present within the book, that symbolism will typically be explained or interpreted for us by the writer himself, or perhaps within the whole of Scripture. The symbolism will symbolize some historical person or events that will most certainly come to pass in the real world.

One of the primary reasons I read Ezekiel 40-48 literally is due in part to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic I utilize. Approaching the text with those rules of interpretation in place draws me to the conclusion that Ezekiel’s temple will be a real building. There is more I could mention, but let me lay out three reasons I believe these chapters describe a literal temple.

First, the text itself suggests this is a prophecy meant to be understood literally. For example, in the opening verses of Ezekiel 40, the prophet describes being taken in a vision to Jerusalem 14 years after the city was captured. In that vision, Ezekiel is guided by “a man,” – an angel – who revealed the “new” temple to him. That man directly tells Ezekiel to pay close attention to what he was about to see and hear so as to declare it to the house of Israel (Ezekiel 40:4).  Later, in chapter 43, when God begins announcing His intentions to dwell once again with His people Israel, Ezekiel is told to “make known to them” the design, arrangements, ordinances, and laws, and to write those things down so the people would perform them, (Ezekiel 43:11).

Considering that Ezekiel’s audience will be the people of Israel, how else would they understand the meaning of that vision? Why would they NOT understand it to mean God intended for them to build that temple in the fashion He reveals to Ezekiel? Am I to sincerely conclude that when they read Ezekiel’s plans, they understood them to merely be an “idealized” reality of God’s presence among His people, or that it was all “symbolic” of some spiritual body who will be known as “the Church” or “the New Israel” or whatever? If God intended for them to read Ezekiel’s description of the temple, I would expect God intended for them to really build it.

Some may object by pointing out that Ezekiel tells us it was “a vision” in 40:2. That would tell the reader that a “vision” is meant to be understood more symbolically than literally. However, I would point out Ezekiel 8-11, which is the description of God’s glory departing the temple in Jerusalem before it fell to Babylon. In 8:3, Ezekiel says he was carried there “in visions” and he saw the real temple in Jerusalem and the real glory of God leaving it. Chapters 8-11, where the glory of God is described leaving the temple is a bookend to chapters 40-48, where the glory of God returns. If the temple in 8-11 was a real, physical building, I should only expect the temple in 40-48 to be the same.

And one footnote to that point. In 1 Chronicles 28:11, David gives Solomon the plans to the temple he was to build. David tells Solomon in 28:19 that, the LORD made me understand in writing, by His hand upon me, all the works of these plans. David’s words to Solomon ring in a similar way as Ezekiel’s. Just as God showed David by a vision the real temple Solomon built in Jerusalem when he was king, so too God showed Ezekiel a real temple that will also be built in Jerusalem.

Second, the details of chapters 40-48 imply a literal interpretation, not a symbolic one. A second reason why I believe Ezekiel’s temple vision is literal has to do with the minute details described in the chapters. Such things as the measurements of walls, gateways, courtyards, and archways. Included is the exact number of steps leading up to the gateways, the landscaping of palm trees (assuming these are real palm trees and not decor), the geographic direction the doors and gateways are to face, and the calendar days sacrifices were to be prepared and offered.

If those details are meant to be “spiritual” or “typological” what possibly could be their referents? What would be the anti-types? Take for instance Ezekiel 34 and the comparison between good and bad shepherds who watch over God’s flock. Obviously the idea of shepherds is meant to symbolize the spiritual leadership in Israel and the “flock” is God’s people. But I make that interpretation because such is implied within the actual text.

Or again, Ezekiel 37, which is a vivid picture of a valley of dry, skeletal remains coming together and supernaturally returning to life as a living, flesh and bone army that is energized by the breath of God. The picture is of God’s gathering His people Israel who had been scattered throughout all the world and restoring them to their land and covenant faithfulness. Yet that symbol isn’t left to the whimsy of the interpreter. It’s explained within the very text of chapter 37.

Third, there are specific, unique details within the details that tell me Ezekiel’s vision is  literal. Expanding a little more on the idea of the minute details recorded in 40-48, is the description with particularly unique details.  For instance, in 40:26, Ezekiel records that 7 steps lead up to the southern gateway. In 40:31, with the gateways of the inner court there are 8 steps. This is also seen in 40:37 for another gateway in the inner court. What do 7 steps in one description mean as opposed to 8 in another if they are merely “spiritual?”

In chapter 41:23ff., Ezekiel describes wooden canopies covering the vestibules outside the sanctuary. The window frames were beveled. Why is it necessary to describe this detail in a vision that was never intended to be taken literally? What then is the point of describing canopies that were never meant to be fashioned?

One last example can be seen in the description of the river that flows out from under the temple threshold. According to Ezekiel, this river flows eastward toward the Dead Sea and “heals” its waters. The Dead Sea then becomes a “Living Sea” that supports an abundance of fish.  Moreover, fruit trees will grow up in the area surrounding the former “Dead” Sea and produce year around fruit.

The typical spiritual interpretation is to liken this river to the words of Jesus in John 7:38 where Jesus says that out of the hearts of those who believe upon Him “will flow rivers of living water.” Or Revelation 7:17 where it is written, for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Daniel Block sums up the passage here in Ezekiel 47:1-12 by stating, “All these features suggest an impressionistic literary cartoon (a favorite expression Block uses throughout his commentary to describe the whole of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy) with an intentional ideological aim” [Block, 701].

The problem, however, with spiritualizing this river is Ezekiel 47:11 which states, But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt. What exactly is the point of noting how the swamps and marshes (positioned primarily at the south end of the Dead Sea) will still remain salty if this is a spiritual vision about a river of eternal life? Daniel Block cites Bishop Theodoret of Antioch (393-458 A.D.) who believed the temple stream is a picture of the saving grace of Christ and baptism through which that grace is received [ibid, 699, fn. 73]. Theodoret identifies the salt marshes with lukewarm Christians whose punishment is a useful warning to others. How it is exactly he finds lukewarm Christians in the text is left unexplained.

Honestly, I believe an appeal to “symbolism” and “typology” is often taken by commentators just because a supernatural event, like this river flowing from the temple, seems too fantastic for literal fulfillment.  It is as if commentators are defaulting to a spiritualized interpretation because it’s too hard to believe any such physical river could exist or that the land of Israel could change its geography. In spite of the fact Zechariah 14:4 suggests such a cataclysmic change does take place at the return of Christ.

That approach comes across as a hermeneutic of unbelief that doubts God’s supernatural intervention, similar to those skeptical scholars who attempt to explain away the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus or one man, Samson, single-handedly slaying an army.

Those are just three major reasons I take chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel as a literal description of a temple that will be built in the future. Obviously, I would be naive to think my position isn’t fraught with any difficulty. I recognize that it is. The most significant difficulty being the re-establishment of animal sacrifices in Ezekiel’s temple in worship.  Answering that objection is what I hope to take up next time.

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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.

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