A Question I Was Asked:

Can You Explain Ezekiel's Temple?

The Questions:

Concerning Ezekiel's vision of the Temple in Ezekiel chapters 40-44:
1. Which temple is this (i.e. when)?
2. What are the sacrifices for?
3. Who is the prince?
4. What do all the measurements mean (symbolism if any)?

Although I have read several commentaries on this, I am still confused. The interpretations seem to depend on the denominational views of the commentators. I don't expect you to answer all my questions, but perhaps you can help me sort out the cultish views from the solid ones.

UK Apologetics Reply:

The temple of Ezekiel has been described as "one of the great anachronisms (apparent timing mistakes) of the Bible," and has become something - to be perfectly frank - that it is easier for Bible commentators simply to avoid.

There are numerous cults and sects out there who teach that Ezekiel was writing about a coming "millenium" (that is, a thousand year reign of Christ on earth), in which Old Covenant law will be fully restored, this to include a new temple at Jerusalem, a restored priesthood, with new daily sacrifices etc., everything that looked forwards to Christ having been restored. We really have to say right here and now that to adopt that particular explanation is to pretty much ignore about 90% of New Testament teaching (in which, for example, Christians are taught that they themselves are now God's temple and the purpose of the law was as a child tutor to lead us to Christ. Just as an example, look at 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Galatians 3:23-29).

Of course, some agree that Christians should put the old covenant with its unending laws and regulations behind them, but insist that, in an envisaged "millenium," all non-Christians will have to be obedient to the old covenant once again and that Christian conversion will not be immediately open to them - hence a new Levitical temple! This is despite the fact that the New Testament never teaches such a thing; the Gospel we are to take to the world (non-believers) is a message about Christ and His grace - not about a defunct Levitical temple system which is now "obsolete" (Hebrews 8:13).

The New Covenant focus is Christ, the pathway to Him being faith and grace, the law on the other hand was the focus of the Old Covenant. If those who teach that Ezekiel's temple is a future literal temple to be built at Jerusalem were correct, then no less than Jesus Himself, John the Apostle, Paul the Apostle, plus the writer of the Book of Hebrews (author uncertain), were completely wrong. In that case, the New Covenant has not come, the coming of Christ has not made any real difference!

Under the misguided assumptions of this false teaching, Paul was therefore wrong when he wrote,

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4, NKJV).

He was even more wrong when he wrote,

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar - for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children - but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: "Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband." Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman." So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. (Galatians 4:21-31, NKJV).

In the above Scripture it is made pretty plain - could it be any plainer? - that Old Covenant law must now be "cast out" in order for us to properly serve Christ! Even more: we are told that those who wish to stand under the Old Covenant, claiming its promises, can never be joint-heirs with Christian believers! This is unequivocal, indeed.

This is why, when comparing the Old and New Covenants, the Book of Hebrews can affirm,

By calling this covenant "new," he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8:13, NIV).

The "soon" occurred within a very few years of Hebrews being written when, in AD70, the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Romans. Many of the laws of the Old Covenant cannot function correctly without a God-sanctioned temple being in existence; Christians - however - do not require a physical temple since they themselves (as we just saw) are now the temple of God!

Okay, so having firmly established the fact that it would be a complete theological confusion and an anachronism for an Old Covenant temple (with full Levitical duties) to be re-established after the full revelation of Christ, and after His Second Coming, what can the explanation for Ezekiel's temple be? When will this prophecy be fulfilled? Or is it that some of us are completely musunderstanding something rather important here?

Possible Explanations...

The first thing to say is to 'fess up' (as the Americans say), that no Bible commentator can be absolutely sure about where we should place this temple within history, yet there are some options.

Bearing in mind all of the above, and never forgetting the fact that Christians must now view the Old Testament only through the greater knowledge, or spiritual 'lens' revealed within the revelation of the New Testament/New Covenant, we look at the possibilities for placing Ezekiel's temple of Ezekiel 40-48 within salvation history:

  1. This is not a new temple at all but the one which had already been constructed by Solomon and was subsequently destroyed by the Chaldeans. In his commentary, Adam Clarke wrote,
    "The temple here described by Ezekiel is, in all probability, the same which he saw before his captivity, and which had been burned by the Chaldeans fourteen years before this vision. On comparing the Books of Kings and Chronicles with this prophet, we shall find the same dimensions in the parts described by both; for instance, the temple, or place which comprehended the sanctuary, the holy place, and the vestibule or porch before the temple, is found to measure equally the same both in Ezekiel and the Kings. Compare 1 Kings 6:3-16, with Ezekiel 41:2, etc. The inside ornaments of the temple are entirely the same; in both we see two courts; an inner one for the priests, and an outer one for the people. Compare 1Kings 6:29-36; 2 Chronicles 4:9; and Ezekiel 41:16, Ezekiel 41:17, and Ezekiel 48:7-10. So that there is room to suppose that, in all the rest, the temple of Ezekiel resembled the old one; and that God's design in retracing these ideas in the prophet's memory was to preserve the remembrance of the plan, the dimensions, the ornaments, and whole structure of this Divine edifice; and that at the return from captivity the people might more easily repair it, agreeably to this model."

  2. Strongly related to the above point, this is the temple which the Jews who returned from the Persian captivity could have indeed built if they had not spent many years squabbling over the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls and having various other in-house arguments!
    Problems: Few. This is a very strong argument.

  3. It is a millenial temple which will definitely be constructed during an envisaged 'millenium.'
    Problems: As we have already noted, there are huge problems within this scenario; where does one even start to list those problems? Purely looking from Ezekiel's point of view, the temple appears to be prophetic but, in the light of what the New Covenant has revealed, the 'prophecy' now becomes highly problematic to place. An American preacher emailed me, saying, "You just about persuade me to drop the whole scheme of a millenium, but I can only place Ezekiel's temple therein, although to do so makes little sense to me. I guess I just don't get it!"

  4. It is purely a 'poetic' construct, not prophecy as such.
    Problems: The text is not put together in a poetic style, as, for example, large parts of Isaiah are.

  5. God is telling the Jews that, if the revelation of the New Covenant had not arrived when it did, He would have allowed a new and more perfect temple. Nevertheless, that will not happen since the revelation of Christ has come and something far better is now offered.
    Problems: Interesting, but not entirely convincing.

  6. Somewhat similar to the last point, but a little stronger. God's purpose in allowing the vision of 'Ezekiel's temple' purely being to encourage those faithful ones among the Jews who were not yet ready to learn about the New Covenant. God simply wanted to lift their spirits. There is no question that Ezekiel's vision has proven to be a great encouragement to the Jews in their trials.
    Problems: Perhaps no real problems.

  7. We should not worry about this prophecy because - standing under the Old Covenant - Ezekiel could only understand his visions through an Old Covenant worldview. He could see the prophetic 'mountains' in the distance but could not make out the true spiritual perspective until the revelation of the New Covenant. In short, the prophet knew that God would construct a new temple but - from where he stood in salvation history - could not understand that the new temple would be constructed from Holy Spirit-led Christian believers. Today the Christian understands that true Christian believers alone are the temple of God.
    Problems: In this scenario, only the fact of a new temple to be constructed is significant; but why then such incredible detail?

I think that little more needs to be stated and that a combination of the two final possible explanations, whilst certainly taking on board the first two points, makes a great deal of sense.

I am not going into the various symbolisms of things within this temple scenario here since there are many books out there which do it so successfully. A good book on this is The Tabernacle, by William Brown (1996). The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible is also excellent on this. But avoid just about everything coming from cult/sect/dispensational prophecy extremists!

Robin A. Brace. May 2nd, 2012.