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
One 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.
We 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!