A Temple Filled With Unsearchable Riches – Part 5
I suggest that Ezekiel’s temple vision was not a plan for a huge temple in the Kingdom of God.
But What About Ezekiel’s Temple?
This grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ. (Eph 3:8).1
Bro. Sulley wrote his book, The Temple of Ezekiel’s Prophecy, based on the assumption that the “Prince” in Ezekiel 40-48 referred to the glorified Jesus Christ. This assumption led to the conclusion that the temple described by Ezekiel was to be a Millennial temple over which Christ would preside.
And, of course, since Ezekiel’s prophecy mentioned animal sacrifices, then Bro. Sulley may have decided that there had to be animal sacrifices in a great temple in the Millennial Kingdom.
As an alternative, I suggest that Ezekiel’s temple vision was not a plan for a huge temple in the Kingdom of God. Instead, it was a plan for a temple—similar to Moses’ tabernacle and Solomon’s temple—to be built by the Jews when they returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Do these details fit?
Many Bible scholars, both Christadelphians and others, agree that the temple to be built by returning refugees provides the historical background for Ezekiel’s vision. At the same time, this point of view rules out altogether the gigantic, elaborate Millennial Temple, as imagined by Bro. Sulley.
We shall now consider some details about the temple Ezekiel describes, and ask ourselves: “Do these details really fit a temple in the Kingdom Age?”
If they do fit, then there is no problem, and we can conclude that Bro. Sulley’s theory has some merit. But, as we inspect this temple that Ezekiel describes, various incongruities come to light, and we begin to see that the square peg of Ezekiel’s vision simply does not fit into the round hole of Bro. Sulley’s conclusion.
First of all, the “prince” (Heb. nasi) described in Ezekiel 45-46, is most likely Zerubbabel, the prince of Judah during the time of their return. He was definitely not a “king” (Heb. melek), because he lacked the necessary authority and power for that office. In this case, such authority belonged exclusively to Cyrus, the king of Persia, who allowed the Jews to return and build a temple to their God (2 Chron 36; Ezra 1). As a prince of Judah, but certainly not as a king, Zerubbabel laid the temple’s foundation to be completed by the returning exiles (Ezra 2:1; 3:8; 5:2; Zech 4:9).
This suggests that Ezekiel’s temple was not intended for the Kingdom Age at all.
Furthermore, we note that:
This prince (Zerubbabel) was to offer sacrifices for himself, that is, for his own sins (Ezek 45:22; 46:10-12).
- He was subject to death and needed to plan for his descendants’ inheritance (Ezek 46:17-18).
- He had sons and presumably a wife (Ezek 46:16).
- At least one of those sons would succeed him (Ezek 45:8; 46:18) upon his death.
None of the items above can reasonably apply to the glorified Christ. He has no “sins” for which any sacrifice or atonement is necessary. He is immortal and can never die again. He never had, nor will he have, an actual wife and children. But since the resurrected and glorified Christ will never die, there is no need for successors, although there will be plenty of his brothers and sisters, the glorified saints, who will assist him in the administration of the Kingdom of God.
How could the immortal Messiah be the “prince”? This would mean that, in offering sacrifices, Jesus would be serving the altar, which was a foreshadowing of himself, as we see in Hebrews 13:10, 15:
Is it reasonable that, when the “shadow” and the “substance” come together, as Bro. Sulley implies, the “substance” (Jesus Christ) is made to serve at the “shadow” (the altar)? Surely this is the wrong way around. Surely the immortal Son of God would no longer need to offer any sort of sacrifice for himself; his sacrificial work was completed when, on the cross, he cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and then breathed out his last mortal breath. As the author of Hebrews wrote:
Our Savior offered the one perfect sacrifice and then “sat down at the right hand of God.” To require this Savior to offer sacrifices day by day is to say that his sacrificial work is not finished! This proposal is nothing less than meaningless and borders on the absurd.
To put it simply, Christ officiating in Ezekiel’s temple just doesn’t “fit!”
Bro. Sulley also assumes that the “sons of Zadok” in Ezekiel’s prophecy are the resurrected and glorified saints. However, the prophet gives us plain evidence that the “sons of Zadok” were mortal men. We know this because:
- The sons of Zadok sweated (Ezek 44:18);
- They were commanded to drink no wine (Ezek 44:21), in contrast to Matthew 26:29, where Jesus told his disciples: “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom”;
- The sons of Zadok were susceptible to defilement themselves, like any mortal men (Ezek 44:25);
- They had no inheritance (Ezek 44:28); and, of course,
- They all died, sooner or later.
So there is the proof that the temple that Ezekiel envisioned would have Levites who turned away from God and defiled themselves by worshipping idols (Ezek 44:10-14,25). Once again, the Millennial Temple of Bro. Sulley simply does not fit in Ezekiel’s prophecy.
In Ezekiel’s temple vision, we see the LORD’S warnings to the house of Israel but not to Gentile believers. For example:
There are other passages where Ezekiel characterizes this house of Israel as “rebellious” (Ezek 24:3; 44:6). This cannot apply to the Jews in the Kingdom of God, and it certainly cannot apply to the immortalized saints who will live in the Kingdom.
Contrast this scenario with the prophets’ pictures of Israel in the Kingdom:
- Jeremiah speaks of them as having God’s law written on their hearts (Jer 31:33).
- They are said to “know me [the LORD], from the least of them to the greatest,” and that “I [the LORD] will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:34). (This is particularly interesting in contrast to the priests in Ezekiel 44:10-14, who worshipped idols.)
- They are said to “be my people, and I will be their God” (Jer 32:38) and to have “singleness of heart and action.” (v. 39).
- These Jews “will never turn away from me.” (Jer 32:40).
- Ezekiel, in earlier chapters, says that God will give to the house of Israel “an undivided heart and…a new spirit…They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezek 11:17-21).
- God will “sprinkle clean water on [them], and [they] will be clean… from all [their] impurities.” (Ezek 36:24-28).
The Jews whom the prophets describe as living during the Kingdom can scarcely be portrayed as rebels against the LORD.
In Ezekiel 43:10-11, the LORD tells Ezekiel to encourage his fellow Jews to repent of their sins and join wholeheartedly in this building of the new temple:
There are many Bible prophecies that should be interpreted conditionally, that is, “If you will obey me, then I will bless you,” or “If you turn away from me, then I will punish you.” (See, for examples, Deut 30:1-3; Psa 81:13-14; Isa 59:20; Jer 3:12-19; 4:1-2; 18:7-10; Amos 5:15; Zeph 2:3; Zech 6:15; Acts 3:19-20).
“If they are ashamed…” This prophecy was conditional upon the Jews’ repentance and obedience. If they truly changed their ways, God would bless them with a new temple in which He would dwell. But if there was no meaningful change for the better, there would be no new temple.
Verses like the ones above may explain why Ezekiel’s vision was never brought to the fullness of glory for which he had hoped in the days of Ezra. The reason could simply be that the people of Israel never showed themselves ready to receive such a blessing.
Could it be that we believers, in this day and age, have not repented and sought the LORD as we should, and therefore our lack of faith, collectively, has led to a delay on God’s part?
Ezekiel’s vision refers to aliens or strangers who have settled in the Land:
This command fits very well with the Jews’ return from Babylon since there were many aliens already in the Land. But does it relate so easily to the Kingdom Age, when the land of Israel will especially be the homeland of the twelve tribes of Israel, and when the “Gentiles” who do dwell there can scarcely be called “aliens”?
The boundaries of the twelve tribes outlined in Ezekiel 47 are consistent with the Israel of Ezra’s day, after the Jews’ return from exile in Babylon. They are not consistent with the much larger allotment of Land in the millennial Kingdom as outlined in Genesis 15.
Ezekiel 47:18 describes the eastern border for the twelve tribes at the Jordan River, and Ezekiel 47:19 speaks of the southern border as the “river” (Heb. nachal). Nachal is the Hebrew word for a small stream, or a “wadi” (RSV, NIV, NET), an often-dry river bed that usually has only a seasonal flow of water.
This nachal here is usually identified with the Wadi el-Arish, sometimes called “the brook of Egypt” (in Hebrew, nachal mizrayim). This is a wadi in central Sinai considerably east of the Nile River. In the Old Testament, this wadi marks the southern border of the tribe of Judah (Num 34:5; Josh 15:4, 47; 1 Kgs 8:65; 2 Chron 7:8).
The borders described in Ezekiel 47:18-19 are, as said above, consistent with the post-exilic Israel of Ezra’s day. However, they are not consistent with the more far-reaching extent of the Promised Land as God described it to Abram.
In Genesis 15:18-21, God describes the Land which He promised to Abram and his children:
The land promised to Abraham and his spiritual “seed” (Gal 3:26-29) is the much larger land stretching between two great rivers, the Nile in Egypt and the Euphrates in Assyro-Babylon. But the land described by Ezekiel is a much smaller area, suitable for the smaller number of returning exiles.
Ezekiel’s vision of the temple area seems to describe Jerusalem not so much as an inhabited city but primarily as one large, walled temple complex. However, the Jerusalem of the Kingdom Age is described by the prophets elsewhere as a city without walls and inhabited by children:
Ezekiel sees in his vision a large temple area but no real city. The people of Israel are presumably living elsewhere. Historically, this fits very well with the city that Nehemiah endeavored to rebuild. Nehemiah actually had to command the men building the walls “to stay inside Jerusalem at night.” (Neh 4:22).
After the walls were rebuilt, “the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.” (Neh 7:4).
So finally Nehemiah had to seek out the Levites and the singers where they lived in the regions round about, and bring them into Jerusalem (Neh 12:27-29). Evidently, Nehemiah understood Ezekiel’s vision (Ezek 40-48) to be for his own day.
This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “The gate of the inner court facing east is to be shut on the six working days, but on the Sabbath day and on the day of the New Moon it is to be opened.” (Ezek 46:1).
In the Kingdom Age, will the east gate of the temple, as Ezekiel pictures it, be shut six days out of seven and open only on the Sabbath day? Or would the gates be kept open perpetually? The answer is easily found, in both the Old and New Testaments. Isaiah prophesies of “the City of the LORD, Zion of the Holy One of Israel.”
And the Book of Revelation echoes this same language:
As far as gates are concerned, the temple complex which is described by Ezekiel bears a great resemblance to the second temple rebuilt in the days when the Jews returned from Babylon. But in this regard, such a temple bears no resemblance whatsoever to the glorified Jerusalem of the Kingdom Age, which needs no closed gates.
Then there is perhaps the most significant question of all: What is not described in Ezekiel’s vision?
- In this temple of Ezekiel’s vision there is no lavish use of gold and silver.
- There are no High Priestly garments of glory and beauty.
- There is no golden lampstand.
- There is no table for the shewbread, or Bread of the Presence.
The list could go on. The contrasts between Ezekiel’s temple prophecy, and the divine worship of the Kingdom, as described by other prophets, are numerous. But the comparisons of Ezekiel’s temple to the temple of Ezra and Nehemiah’s day are numerous.
Ezra and Nehemiah’s new temple was, of course, a holy place for the worship of the LORD God, but its limitations and omissions only served to remind the Israelites that it fell far short even of the temple they had known before, which had been built in the days of Solomon:
On the twenty-first day of the seventh month, the word of the LORD came through the prophet Haggai: “Speak to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people. Ask them, ‘Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?’” (Hag 2:1-3).
The temple of those days, when Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah oversaw its construction, would only emphasize to the minds of the Jews who saw it that it fell far short in replicating the outward glory of Solomon’s temple.
And to us today, who have read Ezekiel 40-48, the descriptions should emphasize how far short that temple fell in possessing the glory of the future Kingdom of God, when the LORD God and His Son Jesus Christ would be the true glory of the spiritual temple, which consisted of all redeemed and glorified saints.
What Ezekiel’s temple does not seem to have is a Messiah who would be both King and Priest and who would offer one sacrifice that would be all-sufficient. This differs from numerous sacrifices, which have no real value in forgiving sins.
I am not arguing that there will be no literal temple structure in the Millennium. Such a building could serve as a gathering center and a place of worship. However, I am suggesting that the true temple of the Millennium will be the immortal saints alongside Jesus Christ. Anything else, such as a structure of wood and stone, in whatever configuration, may be useful and desirable for the convenience of mortal peoples. But such a structure will never, in the most profound sense of the Scriptures, be the “temple of the living God.” As the martyr Stephen pointed out, just before he was stoned to death by his rabid enemies:
The Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:
There are numerous New Testament passages that demonstrate that God’s real temple, the one which supersedes all other “shadows,” consists of Jesus Christ the cornerstone (Isa 28:16; Zech 10:4; 1Pet 2:6), along with his disciples, who constitute his “body”:
Such passages emphasize that the temple of the New Testament is a spiritual house comprised of true believers in Christ, both now and in the age to come. In this “temple”, the glory of God and the purpose of God will be fully realized.
God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), and the glorified saints will indeed be His glory, which will fill the earth in the Kingdom Age (Num 14:21; Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14).
Austin Leander Ecclesia, TX
Note: In this section, I am especially grateful to Bro. Harry Whittaker for his unpublished paper, A Fresh Look at Ezekiel’s Temple.
1 All Scriptural citations are taken from the New International Version unless specifically noted.