The exploration of Ezekiel 40-48 has caused great scholars to become separated by a vast sea of eschatological and hermeneutical discrepancies. It is not my attempt with this paper to bridge this expanse for I am not skilled, like those who have spent years examining this issue. But, like anyone else in Christendom, I am entitled to an opinion, one which I hope is based on relevant and accurate exegesis and study. It is the purpose of this paper, therefore, to examine the positions relating to the temple prophesied by Ezekiel in chapters 40-48 of the book which bears his name and to give my personal beliefs concerning the relevant issues.
Ezekiel, in chapters 40-48, through the genre of a proto-apocalyptic vision, sets up a new order for Israel. This new order includes a new Temple as a sign of God's presence among His people (40-43). A new order of worship will be instituted so that the people can have access to their God (44-46). Finally, there is to be a new division of the land for all the tribes of Israel to live in the presence of their God forever. (47-48)
What Ezekiel sees for his contemporaries is newness. Not only does he see newness but he sees perfection... he sees EDEN! This is why I feel that what Ezekiel believes that he is seeing is the eternal, perfected future of Israel. It is almost like we see a new 'creation' being espoused by Ezekiel of Israel. Ezekiel 37 is key to understanding the beginnings of the idea of newness found in chapters 40-48.
Ezekiel 37:7 contains the vision of the dry bones which are restored to life. This is a creation motif. The dry/dead bones become renewed to life and represents the restored Israel. If viewed from the eyes of Genesis 1-2, we can see a new Adam. Susan Niditch sees the pattern of chapters 37-48 as the creation of man, the carving out of the created order and the continued defining of that order. 1
Ezekiel 47:1-12 describes the river of life that flows from the temple to bring healing to the land. This is first seen in Gen. 2: 8-14 in Eden. We also find the river is lined with trees which provide food and healing for the people. Again, we see Eden language. It seems Ezekiel is making a very strong connection between creation and the time of this vision. It is my belief that this newness or perfection , this return to Eden, is a key to the interpretation of these passages and they must be viewed in light of these terms.
In Ezekiel 37:26-28, God promises to set His sanctuary in the midst of the people and He promises to once again dwell with them forever in a covenant of peace. What does this mean? And when is this going to take place? There are three possible answers according to Walvoord and Zuck.2 First, Ezekiel predicted a rebuilding of Solomon's temple after the Babylonian captivity. Second, Ezekiel was prophesying about the church in a figurative sense; he did not have a literal temple in mind. Third, Ezekiel was seeing a still-future, literal temple to be built during the millennial kingdom. The first possibility is rejected by most because the temple that was rebuilt was not to the specifications of Ezekiel's vision. The literalists and non-literalists have been arguing for decades over the other two possibilities. Both have their strong and weak points. I will discuss these two positions in depth.
The non-literalist view holds that this vision is not speaking of historic Israel but of the new Israel, which includes all believers in Christ. Christians become the new Israel by being both joint heirs with Christ, who was a Jew, and by believing in the same promises of Abraham. (Matt. 21:43; 1Peter 2:9-10) Non-literalist often interpret Ezekiel 40-48 in light of Revelation 21:1-22:5 and say that what Ezekiel saw was appropriate for him at his time in the history of Israel. But through further and progressive revelation, John, in the Book of Revelation, was able to see the future vision much more clearly. The non-literalist further claim that the design of this temple has not fit any temple in the past. They also say that the river that flows from the Ezekiel temple has not flowed from any other historic temple in the past.
The literalist reads Ezekiel and asks ' If this vision is symbolic or figurative, why so much detail and exactness in the measurements and function of the temple?' This is a good point. The literalists do not believe that it is speaking figuratively of 'perfection', but that it is as literal as in Exodus 35-40 with the description of the building of the tabernacle. Ezekiel, being a priest himself, would have had access to the book of Exodus and would have been familiar with the way God gave the exact dimensions to Moses. This would not have been difficult for him to understand, and the literalists would say the same thing for how we are to interpret it today.
The literalists state that Ezekiel was to write down what he saw so that Israel would be faithful to build the temple as God wanted it built.3 (Ezek. 40:4; 43:10-11; 44:5) I must say that I don't see that in those verses. What I see is that Ezekiel was to tell the people what he saw to shame them. His exactness in describing the temple was to show the holiness and perfection of God and it would cause them to see their own unholiness and imperfection. I must go back to Ezek. 37:26 where it says that God will set His sanctuary and tabernacle among His people and He will dwell with them forever. It does not mention or say that the people will build the temple for God. This would coincide with the Revelation 21-22:5 account where there really is no temple but God is the temple among His people. God, does the action, not man.
The literalists would say that the temple mentioned in Revelation is different than that in Ezekiel. Dispensation literalists view the Ezekiel temple as the millennial temple. It is their belief that this millennial temple can be both similar and different than the one in Revelation because the millennial temple is a preview of the eternal temple which is God Himself in the eternal kingdom.4 What do I believe about the literal or non-literal meaning behind the temple in Ezekiel 40-48? I believe that basically I am quite confused! Like the literalists, I view the extreme detail of the temple measurements being more important than just speaking of perfection. God was quite literal when He gave His instructions to Moses regarding the building of the tabernacle in Ex. 35-40.
On the same hand, I am not certain that the passages mentioned by the literalists actually tell the Israelites to build this temple. It seems that the idea was to show the immense holiness of God and to cause the unholy Israelites to repent. Also, ever since Pentecost, the dwelling place of God has been with men in the hearts of those who believe. I personally don't see the need for a physical temple, all will come to Christ in the same way, through faith and He will inhabit their lives through the Holy Spirit. If I had to take sides, I suppose, right now in my walk with the Lord, I would say that I see the Ezekiel temple as a vision of the eternal state and not the millennial kingdom.
There is another problem which has caused much difficulty in the evangelical boxing arena and that is the reinstitution of the animal sacrificial system of worship in chapters 44-46? Will animal sacrifices be necessary during this time that Ezekiel is prophesying? Once again, the views differ depending whether you accept a literal or non-literal view of the temple.
The literal view of the temple states that in the millennial temple, there will be a reinstatement of animal sacrifices, but only as memorials to the finished work of Christ at Calvary much the same way we observe communion to remember His death and resurrection today.5 The literalist believe that the animal sacrifices in the OT never were intended to take away sin, only to be visual pictures of what Christ would do in the future for them.6 Literalist claim that sacrifices in the new temple was prophesied by others in the Bible: Isa. 2:2-3; 19:21; 56:6-7; 60:7; 66:21; Hosea 3:4-5; Zech. 14:21. They also claim that Jewish believers in the early church did not hesitate to take part in temple worship which included animal sacrifices. (Acts 21:26)7
The dispensational literalist view holds that in the millennium, the Lord's Supper will be eliminated because Christ will have returned and it will be replaced by animal sacrifices which will be memorials or object lessons of the supreme sacrifice made by Christ on the cross. This is all necessary because they view a separation between Israel and the Church. The temple and sacrificial system must be reinstated and literal to fulfill certain scripture intended for Israel. This would be Israel's final opportunity to worship God correctly, in the purity of holiness according to the Law.8
Non-literalists don't view the temple as a physical building and thus do not see the sacrifices are literal either. It is their belief that these are symbolic or representative of perfect worship to Ezekiel. Since this is what he would understand, perfect and holy worship would look like strict adherence to the Levitical Laws concerning sacrifices and offerings. Ezekiel, in his synchronic moment, saw perfect and holy worship to a holy God , the animal sacrifice was the only way he could have understood this and could have related this to his contemporaries.
To the non-literalists, a return to an animal sacrificial system would be retrogressive. Hebrews 7-10 deals specifically with the supremacy of Christ sacrifice over the OT Mosaic animal sacrificial system. Heb. 10:10-14 says that Christ fulfilled the intentions of the sacrifices once-for-all with His death on the cross and after doing that, He sat on the right hand of God. Non-literalists believe that sacrifices are no longer necessary nor would they have any meaning since the work was done once-for-all in Christ.
I would agree that Heb. 10:10-14 say that the sacrificial system was fulfilled in Christ once-and-for-all. Therefore, I can't hold to a literal interpretation of the sacrificial system in Ezekiel. Again, what we are seeing is the idea of perfection in worship. Because of our position after the cross this is much more evident to us than it would have been to Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 37-48 is talking about a re-creation of human existence and it includes a forever fellowship with God in a perfect environment. What Ezekiel is commenting on is a picture, from his own OT, priestly perspective, of the eternal state of man. In this state man will be recreated (restored) to fellowship with God. God, Himself will dwell in the midst of His people forever. In this new state, man will forever worship God is a pure and holy way symbolized by the perfect and holy example of the OT sacrificial system as viewed by Ezekiel.. The restored , worshipping people of God will dwell in a land promised to Abraham, it will be a return to Eden. We will have come full circle in our human existence.
1. Susan Niditch, "Ezekiel 40-48 in a Visionary Context", Catholic Quarterly
(Ap 1986) p. 223
2. Walvoord and Zuck, Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, (USA: Victor Books.1985) p. 1303
3. Gaebelein, Expositors Bible Commentary #6, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co. 1986) p. 943
4. i.b.i.d. p. 945
5. Clive A. Thomson, "The Necessity of Blood Sacrifices in Ezekiel's Temple", Bibliotheca Sacra #123 (July 1966) p. 239
6. John C. Whitcomb, "Christ's Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel" Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (Fall 1985) p. 203
7. Walvoord and Zuck, Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, (USA: Victor Books. 1985) p. 1305
8. Gaebelein, Expositors Bible Commentary #6, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co. 1986) p. 947
Cooke, G.A. International Critical Commentary: Ezekiel. London: T&T,
Clark Edinburg, 1936
Craigie, Peter C. Ezekiel: The Daily Study Bible Series Philadelphia:Westminster Press 1983
Gaebelein. Expositor's Bible Commentary #6. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co. 1986
Guthrie, D. Motyer, J.A. The New Bible Commentary Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1993
Jamison, Fausset, Brown. A Commentary Vol 2: Job-Mal. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1973
Newberry, Thomas. Types of the Temple London: W.G.Wheeler and Co.
Niditch, Susan. "Ezekiel 40-48 in a Visionary Context". Catholic Quarterly #48 (Ap. 1986)
Orr, James. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers 1956
Thomson, Clive A. "The Necessity of Blood Sacrifices in Ezekiel's Temple" Bibliotheca Sacra #123 (1966).
Walvoord, John F. and Zuck, Roy B. Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, (USA: Victor Books. 1985)
Whitcomb, John C. "Christ's Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel" Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (Fall 1985)
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