Will There Be a Future Temple?

Preston Sprinkle —  May 7, 2013 — 12 Comments
This entry is part 1 of 6 in the seriesWill There Be a Future Temple?

Will Christians worship God in the future (e.g. the millennium) at a physical temple? This has been a debate for many years, especially since 1948 when Israel became a state again. Now, theological camps are divided on the question (shocker, I know). In general, Dispensationalists would say yes, there will be a temple during Christ’s thousand-year reign on earth. This temple will be fully equipped with priest, sacrifices, and all sorts of other old covenant forms of worship. Covenant theologians, however, say ezekiels_templeno there will not be a physical temple at any point in the future. We are the temple. The presence of God dwells in the church not in a physical building. Now, the one thing these two views agree on is that the main passage that speaks about a future temple is Ezekiel 40-48.

Ezekiel is a wild book. It’s filled with hair-raising visions, offensive language, and sexual images that make translators blush, which is why there is not a single literal English translation of, say, Ezekiel 16 and 23. Then, as if we didn’t have enough to wrestle with, this other-worldly book ends with a prophecy about a future temple (Ezek 40-48, esp. 40-43). In short, Ezekiel has a vision where he follows a “man…with a measuring cord in his hand” (40:2-3), who goes around measuring a temple (chs. 40-42). He then sees the glory of God return to the temple (43:1-5) and the priestly sacrificial system re-instituted (43:13-46:24).

Now, from an old covenant perspective, there’s nothing odd about this. God’s presence dwells in a temple and sin is atoned for by killing animals. But from a new covenant perspective, you should be a bit troubled by the idea of rebuilding the temple and sacrificing animals after Jesus has died as the ultimate sacrifice—a death that tore the curtain of the temple in two.

So how is Ezekiel’s prophecy fulfilled?

Some say that it was fulfilled in 515 B.C. That’s the year that Israel rebuilt the temple after they returned home from exile. The only problem is that the measurements taken in Ezekiel 40-42 don’t match the temple that was built in 515 B.C. Not even close. So Ezekiel is probably looking beyond the temple that existed after exile (this would include Herod’s extreme temple makeover in the first century).

Therefore, Dispensationalists would say that Ezekiel’s prophecy must be literally fulfilled at some future time. And since there’s no temple in the church age, and since there will be no temple in the final state (Rev. 21:22), Ezekiel’s temple must be rebuilt during the thousand year reign of Christ. Now, to be clear, the few verses that mention Christ’s thousand-year reign (Rev. 20:2-7) don’t talk about a temple. And again, when the thousand years are up, there will be no temple (Rev. 21:22). The fulfillment of Ezekiel 40-48, therefore, is more implied than explicitly stated, according to this view.

The strength of the Dispensational view lies in the specific measurements given in Ezekiel 40-42. If Ezekiel had given some general, off-handed prophecy about a future temple, then perhaps he wasn’t thinking of a literal building. But when the angel shows him a temple, he gives him very specific measurements of it. One would assume, therefore, that God intends to fulfill his prophecy (or vision) literally.

Despite the strength of this argument, and despite the fact that I was taught this view in school, and despite the fact that I have many friends and theologians much smarter than I who still hold to this view, I believe it’s incorrect. I believe that there’s much stronger biblical evidence that supports a non-structural fulfillment (I’ll explain later) of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy. But before I explain this, let’s look at one main problem with the Dispensational view.

Ezekiel 43-46 says there’ll be sacrifices that go along with the new temple.

“Yes,” says the Dispensationalist, “but the animal sacrifices at the millennial temple (i.e. Ezekiel’s temple) will not carry atoning value. They will simply be a memorial in which we will remember the sacrifice of Christ.”

Hmmmm…I guess this is a bit better, though I’m still not sure the author of Hebrews would be cool with this. In any case, there’s still a big problem—Ezekiel says that the animal sacrifices will be for atonement, not as a memorial.

“And one sheep from every flock…to make atonement for them” (45:15)

“He shall provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, to make atonement on behalf of the house of Israel” (45:17).

And many other passages agree. So, while I appreciate the desire to see the animal sacrifices as non-atoning, the Dispensational view smuggles a non-literal Nepal Animal Sacrifice reading of Ezekiel 40-48 in the back door. They don’t take a literal view of Ezekiel 45:15, 17 and many other passages that speak of atonement.

So I agree and disagree with this view. I agree that God will fulfill Ezekiel’s temple-oriented sacrificial system non-literally. But I disagree that the rest of Ezekiel 40-48 must be interpreted literally. Why would it be? If the New Testament demands a non-literal reading of the sacrificial system in Ezekiel 43-46, then why can’t we also take a non-literal reading of the future temple in Ezekiel 40-42?

We’ll explore this further in the next post.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/ywilber Yvonne Comstock Wilber

    Herod’s extreme temple makeover. Heh heh.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ScrollTag Joshua Grauman

    Just some food for thought from the other side… ;) Did the OT sacrifices actually provide atonement (and what is meant by that)? Because I would argue that the Hebrews argument cuts against sacrifices in the OT just as equally as sacrifices in the NT. “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin” which is in reference to the OT sacrifices… So if the OT sacrifices didn’t take away sin, why shouldn’t there be non-sin-taking-away-sacrifices in the NT?

    I explain the OT sacrifices in class as follows: They are like checks. In the OT the only way to pay was with checks, but a check is worthless without money in the account. Jesus’ sacrifice is obviously the money in the bank account. But in the OT, the checks did in a sense pay the debt. But then again, the check is just a piece of paper and is worthless without the money in the bank. But now, in the NT we have direct deposit! and the checks are no longer needed… So, OT sacrifices were necessary and effectual (there was no other way to be forgiven without them), but not in and of themselves. The same could be true of millennial sacrifices (if indeed Scriptures teaches that there will be a future temple, which I would argue from other passages than Ezekiel, which I agree is tough). My $.02 for what’s it’s worth…

    • Preston

      That’s a good point, bro. And I like that analogy!

      So, you would agree that the sacrifices in Ezekiel will be fulfilled non-literally, in Christ’s sacrifice? I’m pretty sure I agree with everything you said here. Or are you saying there still could be non-atoning animal sacrifices since animal sacrifices were never ultimately atoning?

      Ya, 2 Thess 2 seems to talk about a future temple as well. Not sure if I’ll have time to address that though. The book of Revelation also talks about a temple, but it’s unclear to my mind how much of that is literal, let alone futuristic.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ScrollTag Joshua Grauman

        Those are good questions. I lean towards literal temple and literal non-atoning animal sacrifices (since no sacrifice was ultimately atoning as you state). I do still see the sacrifices as fulfilled and pointing to Christ. But I lean towards seeing the possibility of sacrifices in the kingdom as also pointing backward to Christ, in the same way that the OT ones pointed forward. I always try to ask myself, how would an OT Israelite have taken this, and as crazy as Ezekiel is, I still have a hard time thinking that they would have understood this to be symbolic (although it’s possible).

        It seems clearer to me that there will be a future temple in the tribulation (Dan/Matt’s abomination of desolation in the temple, Rev 11:2, 2 Thess 2, etc.). But this is different from saying that there will be one in the kingdom. In other words, just because there is a temple in the tribulation doesn’t mean that it is God-approved or that the sacrifices offered on it atone for sin. In fact, Israel will be in rebellion still at this point, so the temple will exist but won’t please God at that point. But based on Zechariah, Haggai, and Ezekiel, I still tend to see a future temple in the kingdom as well, but I’m not as certain about this one and can see the argument that it is fulfilled in Christ. What it comes back to for me is to look at those OT texts and to try to ascertain if the authors are giving us a clue that the text was meant to be interpreted symbolically, and in this case I haven’t been convinced that they do…

  • AP

    Thanks for this post Preston. Brad and Bill and I were just talking about this very topic, and we all felt that same tension, so I’m really looking forward to the next post. Also, I heard Herod’s Extreme Temple Makeover is coming next fall to ABC.

    • Preston

      Too funny, bro!

  • Jared

    Good blog Preston! In addition to all that you said, to believe a Temple would be rebuilt would be to define our whole idea of eschatology with a millenial hermeneutic! There are some people who do not even think that the ‘milennium’ is meant to be taken literally.

    • Preston

      Thanks Jared. And just to be clear, there are a lot of premil folks who agree with my reading. Being premil doesn’t demand that you believe in a future temple.

      • Jared

        O cool! I did not know that!
        What I was trying to get at also was that I think it is silly that we use the millennial passage and define our eschatological stances based off of it. With all the other pre-, post-, and inter-ludes in the book of Revelation we do not look for a literal fulfillment, such as the sealing of the 144 thousand in ch 7, John measuring the Temple and the 2 witnesses in Revelation 11, or the reaping of the earth in ch 14, or at least we do not define our eschatological categories off them, like we do with the millennial passage. The millennial kingdom seems to present itself in the same ways as the other -ludes do in the book, so it is just fascinating to me that we overly focus on that one.