When will Ezekiel’s temple be built?

Q: The prophet Ezekiel prophesied that there would be a new temple (Ezk 40:1-48:35). When will this temple be built (if it will be built at all)?

This passage in Ezekiel is the source of much contention between interpreters. Dispensationalists (those who hold to a sharp distinction between Israel and the Church, and a millennial perspective of Palestine) would generally take Ezekiel’s prophesy to indicate that there will be a literal temple built in the millennium in which animal sacrifices will be restored. The Dispensational Bible Knowledge Commentary, produced by Dallas Theological Seminary, states:

Three interpretations of chapters 40-43 are held by Bible students: (1) Ezekiel predicted a rebuilding of Solomon’s temple after the Babylonian Captivity. (2) Ezekiel was prophesying about the Church in a figurative sense; he did not have a literal temple in mind. (3) A still-future literal temple will be built during the millennial kingdom. The first view must be eliminated because it suggests that Ezekiel was mistaken when he wrote. No prophet speaking under God’s authority ever uttered a false prediction (Deut. 18:21-22; cf. Matt. 5:17-18). Also the remnant that returned to Israel after the Exile did not follow Ezekiel’s specifications. The second view must also be eliminated because it violates the normal meaning of Ezekiel’s words. Those who hold this view are inconsistent for they interpret Ezekiel’s earlier, now-fulfilled prophecies literally, yet interpret his yet-unfulfilled prophecies symbolically (comm. in loc). 

Well, I hold to the second view that Ezekiel is not giving a blueprint of a millennial temple. It is, instead, a vision about the purity and spiritual vitality of the worship of God by God’s people. This is why the name of the new city on which the temple sits is “The LORD is there” (Ezk 48:35). The Old Testament tabernacle and temples were typical and symbolic of God’s presence among His people. Thus, we understand to be fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ what God said through Ezekiel: 

24 And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. 25 And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. 26 Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. 27 My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28 And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore”

(Ezk 37:24-28)

Christ is referred to as David. The Church is referred to as Jacob. The land speaks about the estate of salvation and the blessing that the children of God would experience. Christ is also the sanctuary, for as the apostle John says, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). The word “dwelt” (σκηνόω, skēnoō) may be translated “tabernacled.” The Lord Jesus is the “tabernacle [σκηνή, skēnē] of God” (Rev 21:3). “He will dwell [σκηνόω] with [His church], and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Rev 21:3). Notice that this is precisely what God says through Ezekiel: “My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Ezk 37:27). 

From here alone, we can see that the Dispensational charge that “those who hold this view are inconsistent for they interpret Ezekiel’s earlier, now-fulfilled prophecies literally, yet interpret His yet-unfulfilled prophecies symbolically” is without basis. The fact is that we do not think that most of Ezekiel’s prophesies are or will be fulfilled in a wooden literal way. This is especially so for prophecies which involve Old Testament entities that can be shown to have rich typological significance in the New Testament, such as the tabernacle and temple. 

In general, the temple has a typological meaning similar to the tabernacle, as the Lord himself spoke of his body as the temple (Jn 2:19; 21). But as the Church is the Body of Christ, the apostles teach us that we are the temple of God. Thus the apostle Paul says: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1Cor 3:16; cf. 1 Cor 3:7; 2 Cor 6:16). Similarly, the apostle Peter reminds us that we “as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). Thus when the apostle John speaks of measuring the temple of God, he is referring to marking out those who belong to God (Rev 11:1). 

Thus, an excellent case can be made for taking Ezekiel’s temple as symbolic rather than literal. It is true that many detailed dimensions are given in the descriptions so that it appears that a literal interpretation is intended. But the difficulties attending a literal interpretation are simply too great. First, the description of the river coming out from under the temple’s threshold (Ezk 47:1-12) suggests a symbolic rather than a literal fulfilment. Secondly, the reinstatement of animal sacrifices (Ezk 40:38-43) in future would be directly contrary to the teachings of the New Testament that animal sacrifices having only typological significance ceased with the coming of the antitype, the Lord Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews makes this very clear in chapters 9 and 10 and suggests that anyone who returns to Judaistic forms of worship would be trampling underfoot the blood of Christ (Heb 10:29). This is so because all Old Testament sacrifices were shadows and types looking forward to the one perfect sacrifice of Christ (Heb 10:1-18). Since Christ has come, there is no more need for any sacrifices (Heb 10:18). All further animal sacrifices, then, deny the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice and are no different from pagan sacrifices.  

The Dispensational arguments that animal sacrifices are for ceremonial cleansing, whereas Christ’s sacrifice was for cleansing of the conscience, or that Old Testament sacrifices look forward to Christ, whereas Millennial sacrifices look back to Christ, are beside the point. The prohibition of sacrifice in Hebrews 10 is a blanket prohibition. One need only to think of how much confusion the book of Hebrews will generate in the supposed millennium (where many unregenerate and unglorified people will dwell together and have to offer sacrifices) to appreciate how untenable the position is. 

I am convinced that the temple of Ezekiel is not literal. It will not have an earthly, physical fulfilment but speaks of the purity and orderliness of Christ-centred worship now and for all eternity. Ω