I am currently reading through Ezekiel, which always gets me thinking, and then I was at a Men’s Breakfast where another man referred to Ezekiel’s temple, assuming that it would be physically built during the millennium. Given these twin promptings, I thought I should try and get my head around what Ezekiel is describing.
Now, I have problems with the whole concept of the millennial rule of Jesus, as I have noted elsewhere. But how should we read Ezekiel’s description? He devotes considerable effort to this description of the temple and the division of the land, so we should take it seriously.
Most of the commentaries I have access to take the, now very common, pre-millennial view, but a few are willing to stand out from the crowd.
Andrew Knowles is worth quoting:
Ezekiel was a priest before he was called to be a prophet. He looks forward to the return of Israel to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. But the temple he visits in his vision will never be built.Knowles, A. (2001). The Bible guide (1st Augsburg books ed., p. 339). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg
This is a temple with supernatural features. It is situated on a ‘very high mountain’. It has a ‘river of life’ flowing from its sanctuary. The vision is for inspiration rather than reality.
The Christian understanding is that Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament institutions of temple, priesthood and sacrifice. Jesus Christ is the true temple, where God dwells among his people. He is the great high priest and perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 10:19–21).
So what does this vision mean for Ezekiel? It is an inspiration to return, to rebuild and to hold high the holiness of God. Ezekiel is expressing the centrality and glory of God among his people, in the very best way he can imagine.
John, the writer of the book of Revelation, does not see Ezekiel’s temple in the heavenly city, because ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb [Jesus Christ] are its temple’ (Revelation 21:22).
Knowles refers to the “river of life”. This name comes, not from Ezekiel, but from Rev 22:1-2, where John refers to the “river of the water of life”. In Ezekiel 47:1, this flows from the temple, in Revelation, it flows from the “throne of God and of the Lamb”. Knowles is right in saying that there is no temple in the account in Revelation, as “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). All this leads me to conclude that Ezekiel and John both saw a related vision, but expressed it in sometimes different, and sometimes similar terms.
One commentator suggests:
While many interpreters advocate that the whole section is symbolic, the careful detail, plus the fact that the plans are architecturally sound, suggests a literal structure.Criswell, W. A., Patterson, P., Clendenen, E. R., Akin, D. L., Chamberlin, M., Patterson, D. K., & Pogue, J. (Eds.). (1991). Believer’s Study Bible (electronic ed., Eze 40:5). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
However, just because the vision is physically possible doesn’t mean that it is meant to be built. But even this claim is questionable, there are features that make it unlikely that it is actually meant to be physically built. Expanding on the features that Knowles mentions, we need to consider:
- Sacrifices. In numerous places, Ezekiel mentions sacrifices taking place in the temple (e.g. Ezekiel 40:39-43; 42:13-14; 43:18-27; 45:13-46:15). Their purpose is to “make atonement for them” (Ezekiel 45:15). However, our atonement has been accomplished, once and for all, by Jesus, no more sacrifices are required (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:8-14). Sacrifices were only required before Jesus died. He has done away with them (that is why the temple was destroyed in 70AD, it is no longer needed). The temple Ezekiel describes was not built before Jesus died, and will not be required in the future. Hence this temple cannot be something that is built in the millennial age, as it is not required then.
- Eternal. Ezekiel tells us that this temple is eternal (Ezekiel 41:7, 9). Again this is not something that is going to be built for a tiny 1000 years, it is going to last forever. Again this cannot be a reference to something to be built in the millennium.
Having seen a vision of the Lord departing from the temple (Ezekiel 10:18), Ezekiel is now given a new vision of a restored temple, where God will dwell with his people. Ezekiel is in exile, and the people are wondering whether God has abandoned them, or has been proved powerless, but this vision assures them that God has plans for the future. He has not been defeated, he will bring about his purposes, and will fulfill all his promises.
Maybe, part of the reason Ezekiel was given this picture of this “perfect” temple was to point out the problems with the Mosaic/ Davidic sacrificial system, and to point forward to a new way of doing things in the future – the New Covenant brought in by Jesus.
Ezekiel finishes his book with these words (Ezekiel 48:35):
“And the name of the city from that time on will be:THE LORD IS THERE.”
A fitting end.