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 no 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 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.