Archives For The Temple

Last time we argued that the finality of Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t rule out future sacrifices pointing to His. Then we argued that when Scripture uses images and symbols it explains them so that the text can still be taken at face value.

 

Ezekiel explains the images he uses

So how does this bear on our reading of Ezekiel 40-48? When Ezekiel uses symbolic imagery, he also explains what the symbols represent. The vision of the flaming chariot throne in chapter 1 is explained to represent a vision of the glory of Yahweh. The riddle about an eagle and a cedar in chapter 17 is explained in detail. The two harlots in Ezekiel 23 are explained to be Samariah and Jerusalem. The valley of dry bones in chapter 37 is explained to represent the nation of Israel, etc.

Ezekiel's TempleBut when we get to Ezekiel 40-48, no such interpretation or explanation is given. Ezekiel spends nine chapters describing the temple, the priests, and the sacrificial system in great detail. And yet as far as I can see there is no hint in the text itself that it is not to be understood at face value. So how could the original readers come to any conclusion other than that God was promising to one day dwell with His people in a restored and renewed temple?

And if the original readers could only have understood God to be promising that one day He would rebuild the temple, is God’s faithfulness on the line to keep His promise? Ultimately, that is why I think this issue is worth discussing. Debating the intricacies of how or when future events will happen has little value for us to speculate on. But discussing and more accurately understanding what God has promised and how He will keep those promises gives us greater assurance in His faithfulness.

 

Haggai and Zechariah encourage the people with a future temple

In Haggai 2:6-7 God says,

“”For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. ‘I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts.”

ProphetsThe people in Haggai’s day were discouraged because the temple that they were building didn’t seem significant. But God reassured them that the very temple they were building would one day be filled with glory. The very rocks that they laid down in restoring that temple are still in the temple mount today. And one day they will be incorporated into God’s future temple. How encouraging this would have been to them to know that their work had actual significance. But if there isn’t going to be a future temple, how does this encouragement from God have any bearing on their work? God’s logic here was: “Keep working on this temple for one day your work will be incorporated into God’s glorious future temple.”

Likewise, God says in Zechariah 6:12-13,

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Behold, a man whose name is Branch, for He will branch out from where He is; and He will build the temple of the Lord. “Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the Lord, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.”‘

Just like in Haggai, here we see God giving the people encouragement that God’s plan would be brought to fulfillment. He will bring in His kingdom. That kingdom will be marked by perfect peace and justice as evidenced by the fact that the Messiah will be a priest-king. He will be perfectly righteous in His perfect sovereignty. And He is the one who will build God’s temple. I don’t see how the original hearers of Zechariah could have separated the face-value promise of the coming of the king priest from what He was coming to do, to build God’s glorious temple. And the text then assures the readers that when this prophecy comes true, they will know that Yahweh sent the Messiah as a vindication of His promise (6:15).

So the very logic that Haggai and Zechariah use to encourage the people depend upon taking the promise of the future temple at face value. I argue that the people in their day could only have understood these texts as a promise of a future temple and so we should take the promises in the same way.

 

New Jerusalem fulfills the concept of temple

I fully agree with Preston that the final fulfillment of the concept of temple is in the New Jerusalem. This is when God in His fullness, like never before, will dwell with His people. This is the final hope to which the temple ultimately points. In fact, Revelation 21 presents this final phase in God’s plan as new and absolutely unique: “Behold the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them.” And “I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.” But I believe John is contrasting the uniqueness of this final temple-less phase with what came before. Put another way, John shows us the physical temple in 11:1-2 that he specifically emphasizes is done away with in chapter 21, and so the most natural reading keeps it present in Christ’s reign in 20:1-6.

It is true that there are a lot of issues more important than whether or not there will be a physical temple in God’s future kingdom! But it is still good for us to wrestle so that we can more clearly understand God’s unchanging Word.

I want to thank Preston for his last three posts about a future temple, especially for bringing out the glorious reality of God’s presence dwelling with humanity. I always appreciate his passion to make scholarship edifying. While I agree with most of what he said, I do think that there will be a physical temple in God’s future kingdom. So in two posts let me take a minute to unpack why I think so and why I think it’s worth talking about.

 

Animal sacrifices never took away sins

Passover LambOne issue people commonly have with Ezekiel’s description of a future temple is the animal sacrifices. If Christ’s sacrifice paid for sin once-for-all (and it did), why would there be animal sacrifices in God’s kingdom in the future? But even that question raises another question: If Christ’s sacrifice paid for sin once-for-all (and it did), why were there animal sacrifices in the Old Testament? Did they actually pay for sin? The OT says that the sacrifices atoned for sin, but the author of Hebrews in speaking of the OT sacrifices says, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (10:4).

So how do we reconcile these two facts? I like to think of the OT sacrifices as 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 the money in the bank account needed to pay the bill. In the OT the checks paid the bill and were necessary to pay it. But then again, the check is just a piece of paper and is worthless without the money in the bank! So while there was no other way to be forgiven besides the animal sacrifices, they were really an expression of faith in the deposit that would be made in Messiah.

The same is true of sacrifices in the kingdom. Both OT and kingdom sacrifices point to the only sacrifice that ever had the ability to pay for sin.

 

Images and symbols are explained in Scripture

So with the primary obstacle out of the way, does the Bible teach that there will be a future physical temple in God’s kingdom or is the future temple described in a way that is meant to be interpreted symbolically? Before we dive into the text directly, let’s investigate how images and symbols are used in Scripture.

Hazard SignsWe need to admit up front that there is imagery and symbolism in the Bible. But I argue that our goal in interpretation is to seek to understand what the original hearers of the text would have understood as images and symbols, and what they would have taken at face value. When imagery and symbolism occur in Scripture, they almost always are accompanied by explanation or interpretation. Otherwise, how would the readers know what the text was supposed to mean?

Let me give one simple example. In Daniel 8, in an apocalyptic passage, there is a story about a ram and a goat. Read the chapter, and you’ll see that this is symbolic. But the text clearly explains what the symbols of the ram and the goat represent (8:20-21). So this clearly apocalyptic passage turns out in fact to be an incredibly accurate prophecy of many years of Medo-Persian and Greek history that actually happened (involving Alexander the Great and the kings after him)!

So while there is symbolism in Scripture, just because there is a symbol doesn’t take away from the face value meaning of the text as a whole because the text explains the meaning of the symbols. That is how even crazy apocalyptic passages with flying goats can accurately prophecy of the future. Likewise, when we investigate example after example of passages with symbolic imagery we see that the text explains what these symbols mean explicitly so that the readers could understand what the text was saying.

A lot more could be said on this topic as we’ve barely scratched the surface, but I at least wanted to briefly outline how I approach this question. I will do one more post showing how this applies to the way we look at Ezekiel 40-48 and then examine what I believe to be two even clearer texts that talk about a future temple in the kingdom. Feel free to chime in below with your thoughts as we spur one another on to think carefully about the text!

In two previous posts, I explored the question of how Ezekiel’s prophecy about a future temple will be fulfilled. We saw that it’s unlikely that it was fulfilled in the second temple built in 515 B.C., and it’s also unlikely that it will be fulfilled in a literal temple in the future. Admittedly, those two views have much more to offer than I’ve been able to give here in these posts. In any case, rather than critiquing those views any further, I want to spend this third and final post defending the view that I believe carries the most Scriptural support.

Put simply: Ezekiel’s temple prophecy (Ezek 40-48) is being fulfilled partially through the church and will ultimately be fulfilled through the New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22).

One of the most widespread descriptions of the church is that it is (or we are) the temple of God. Peter says it (1 Pet 2:4-5). Hebrews hints at it (Heb 12:22-24). And Paul often declaresnew-jerusalem2 that the church is the “temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16; cf. 1 Cor 3:16; Eph 2:21). We sometimes talk about our individual bodies as the temple, but Paul only says this in one verse (1 Cor 6:19). In every other occasion where Paul calls “you” or “us” the temple, he’s referring to the church.

Now, you may think that Paul is simply drawing an analogy between the temple and church and not saying that the church is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. And this may be true, though I think it ignores how biblical theology works (see my second post). But is there really no connection between the church and Ezekiel’s prophecy? Actually there is. In 2 Corinthians 6:16 Paul says:

“We are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’.”

Paul calls the church “the temple of the living God” and then quotes Ezekiel 37:27 to prove it. That phrase “I will make my dwelling among them…” comes right out of Ezekiel. Now, it doesn’t come from Ezekiel 40-48—Paul seems to have fallen a few chapters short. However, Ezekiel 37:27 points forward to Ezekiel 40-48. Look up the commentaries, consult a few Ezekiel scholars, and you’ll see that everyone who’s studied the book sees an integral connection between Ezekiel 37:27 and Ezekiel 40-48. So, Paul calls the church the temple and then cites a verse from Ezekiel that points to the temple in 40-48 to prove his point. So even though Paul never quite says, “Look, dudes, the church fulfills Ezekiel’s temple prophecy, so get over your fear of non-literal prophecies…” I think there’s good biblical grounds to see such a connection strongly implied, if not suggested, in 2 Corinthians 6.

But the church is only a partial fulfillment of Ezekiel’s temple. The ultimate fulfillment comes in Revelation 21-22, where John describes our final state as a city called the “New Jerusalem.”

Now, mentioning the New Jerusalem opens up a whole other can of worms. Is it a literal city? Is it a metaphor? If a metaphor, what’s the metaphor of? We can’t answer all these question. I think the New Jerusalem is at least a metaphor for the glorified church. Indeed, Revelation 21:9-10 (along with Heb 12:22-24) seems to demand this. But I also think the New Jerusalem could represent the new creation as a whole. In any case, the main point about the New Jerusalem is that God’s presence is there. That’s why Revelation 21-22 feels a lot like Genesis 1-2. God’s presence that dwelt in Eden has returned to beautify His creation and dwell with humanity as He originally intended it. That’s why the New Jerusalem is a perfect cube. The only other cube in the Bible was the holy of holies, a perfect cube, the place where God’s presence dwelt on earth.

What does this have to do with Ezekiel’s temple? What’s fascinating is that when John describes the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22, he constantly uses imagery from Ezekiel 40-48. For instance:

Ezekiel is transported to a high mountain in a vision (Ezek 40:2) and so is John in Revelation (Rev 21:10).

Ezekiel has an angelic guide with a measuring rod (Ezek 40:3) and so does John (Rev 21:15-17).

Ezekiel sees a river of life (Ezek 47:1-12) and so does John (Rev 22:1-2).

Ezekiel’s temple is a perfect square and John’s city is a perfect cube (Rev 21:16).

Ezekiel emphasizes purity and holiness (Ezek 40-42) and John does as well (Rev 21:27)

Ezekiel emphasizes God’s glory dwelling in the temple (43:1-9) as does John (Rev 21:3-4).

I could keep going, but you get the point. When John paints a picture of the New Jerusalem he dips his brush in the imagery, language, and symbols of Ezekiel’s temple to do so. To add to this, John never quotes from the Old Testament in Revelation. Rather, he alludes to it. (Did you catch the difference?) The most common way that John says “this is being fulfilled in…” is not to quote from the OT directly, but to use phrases and images from, say, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. So it’s not just coincidence that he clothes the New Jerusalem with temple imagery from Ezekiel. He’s making a specific point, a point about fulfillment.

So why did God reveal to Ezekiel a temple and animal sacrifices? Because God wanted to communicate to Ezekiel about the return of God’s presence and the atonement of sin through the only categories that Ezekiel knew. When Ezekiel (and his audience) thought about God’s presence, they thought about a temple. When they conceived of atonement, they thought about lambs and goats. So for God to tell Ezekiel that these things would be restored, he used the categories of temple and sacrifice, even though God knew that He would fulfill His promise in a much greater—much more powerful and intimate—way.

I’ll end with an analogy. Imagine that God send you back in time to tell Abraham Lincoln that there will be email in the future. Email? How in the world would you describe that to fast horseAbraham Lincoln? You would have to use some sort of category that he was familiar with that correlated with the truth you were trying to convey. I don’t know, maybe you would tell him that in the future there will be postmen that ride horses at 500 miles per hour. Or maybe you’d tell him about a train that would travel from New York to LA in less than a day. Fast Communication. That’s what you’re trying to communicate.

God dwelling with His people; God definitively atoning for sin; God restoring His creation (hence the magical river of Ezekiel 47). These are the truths that God gave Ezekiel. And He communicated these truths to his people through the only categories that sixth century Israelites could comprehend.

 

dispensational chart

Dispensational chart

In the last post, I argued that a literal fulfillment of Ezekiel 40-48 is tough to reconcile with the New Testament. Specifically, even though Ezekiel talks about a future temple, the fact that this temple comes with a sacrificial system that bears atoning value runs roughshod against the New Testament. Christ is our sacrificial atonement, and therefore there’s no reason to sacrifice animals any longer.

But there’s another problem with the literal, or Dispensational, view. And this problem has to do with a biblical theology of temple. Here’s what I mean.

Biblical theology looks at how God’s revelation unfolds, and it studies how various theological themes progress throughout Scripture. Now, the temple is where God’s presence dwells, but God’s presence first dwelt on earth in Eden. But Adam and Eve sinned and were kicked out of God’s presence. They were kicked out of Eden. But God’s desire to dwell with humanity overcomes our sin. And so he makes provisions to dwell with humanity once again. He makes provisions for Israel to build a tabernacle (Exod 25-31, 25-40). After dwelling in the tabernacle for a few hundred years, God moves into a temple—a more permanent, and much more glorious, habitation (1 Kings 5-8). But for hundreds of years Israel lives in sin and breaks the covenant (Jer. 11). So God leaves the temple (Ezek 8-11) and remains distant from Israel.

Eden, Tabernacle, Temple—exile. This is a biblical theology of temple. And it continues.

When Jesus comes on the scene, John says that He “tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). In other words, the presence of God that left the temple returned in Jesus! The full manifestation of God (John 1:17-18)! And Jesus is the temple (John 2:19). He is the physical presence of God on earth. But then Jesus dies, is raised, and ascends to the Father, but this is to our advantage (John 16:17) because He has given us His Spirit. The Spirit of God dwells in the church and we—the church—are therefore “the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16; 1 Cor 3:16; 1 Cor 6:19; Eph 2:21; 1 Pet 2:4-5).

Eden, Tabernacle, Temple—exile—Jesus, Church. The temple theme continues…

When Christ returns and ushers in His new creation—the New Jerusalem—there will be “no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). Why have a temple, where God’s presences is walled off from the people, when God can dwell with His people without separation?

Eden, Tabernacle, Temple—exile—Jesus, Church, and New Jerusalem! God desires to dwell with humanity, and He will achieve this goal! This is the storyline of Scripture.

So, what’s the purpose of a literal, structural temple? It’s to enable a holy God to dwell with sinful people. A temple, with its walls, allows the presence solomon_templeof God to dwell with mankind without annihilating them. The temple (or tabernacle) is a necessary way to enable a holy God to dwell with sinful people. There’s still a relationship, but it’s a less intimate one. That’s why Jesus is called both a tabernacle and a temple—the visible presence of God on earth.

Notice that in this “biblical theology of temple” there’s an escalation. It keeps getting better and better as the narrative unfolds—tabernacle, temple, Jesus, and so on. And this is where my critique of the Dispensational view comes in. If a physical temple is a less intimate way for God to dwell with His people, then does it make theological sense for us to rebuild a physical temple in the millennial kingdom? We’ve been on the escalator since we were kicked out of Eden—tabernacle, temple, Jesus, church. Will we go down the escalator in the millennial kingdom to worship God in a physical temple only to get back on it again to get to the New Jerusalem? Will Jesus stitch together the temple curtain? Why would we enjoy unmediated access to the throne room through the Spirit (Heb 4), and an even greater access to God in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:22), and yet a restricted, walled-off access to God in the millennial kingdom?

Again, the New Testament never says that we will worship God at a temple in the millennial kingdom. Rather, it’s a commitment to a literal reading of Ezekiel 40-48 that gets us there. But perhaps Ezekiel’s temple prophecy—like the sacrificial system—will not be fulfilled literally?

Perhaps God will fulfill His vision to Ezekiel in a much greater, much unexpected way where His presence will dwell with humanity without walls. Perhaps Ezekiel’s temple will be fulfilled in the New Jerusalem.

I’ll show in the next post why this will be the case.

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.