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 declares 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 Abraham 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.