EZEKIEL'S TEMPLE & THE 'MILLENNIAL' PERSPECTIVE:
The question posed is (as I understand it): “How does the ‘millennial’ interpretation of Ezekiel's temple prophecy, found in Ezekiel chapters 40-48, handle the details of those chapters, both with regard to the nature of the temple vision itself and how the temple rites and ceremonies, there described; the animal sacrifices in particular, fit into such an eschatological framework?
THE “MILLENNIAL INTERPRETATION”:
Of the three principal views concerning how ‘the millennium’ (the 1000 years referred to in Revelation chapter 20) should be understood (premillennial, postmillennial and amillennial), I understand that it is the premillennial view that we are being asked about here. Specifically, how does the premillennialist “handle” the detail of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy (Ezekiel 40-48)?
Premillennialism is a theological perspective, primarily (though not solely) based on a narrow reading of Revelation chapter 201 and many premillennialists appear to be completely unaware of the many theological and exegetical problems that accompany the premillennialist view2.
It would appear that the premillennial-dispensationalist3 comes to Ezekiel’s temple vision (Ezekiel 40-48) already committed to a premillennialist perspective and, as a result, imposes this eschatological framework upon the text, notwithstanding the fact that nothing in the text itself warrants it and scripture, generally; particularly the New Testament witness concerning the person and work of Christ, point to a very different interpretation.
PREMILLENNIALISM AND DISPENSATIONALISM:
Although many premillennialists would describe themselves also as dispensationalists, not all premillennialists subscribe to the dispensational model. Some premillennialists (notable George Ladd4) have distanced themselves from some forms of dispensational theology by preferring to use the term “historic premillennialism,” as opposed to “dispensational premillennialism” which remains the more prevalent premillennial view:
The essential difference between these two premillennial views (historic premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism) is the way in which they view the physical nation of Israel (i.e. the Jewish race) eschatologically. According to dispensationalists, ‘the millennium’ will be a time marked by God’s fulfilment of the physical promises made to Old Testament Israel, with a simultaneous restoration of many elements of the old Mosaic system, including a rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, complete with restored physical priesthood and blood sacrifices (supposedly after the Ezekiel model).
Therefore, the fundamental aspect of dispensational premillennialism lies in its distinction between Israel and the Church. “The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved, which is Judaism; while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity.”5 According to Ryrie, this distinction is probably “the most basic theological test of whether [one] is a dispensationalist”6.
Historic Premillennialism on the other hand requires no special role for the physical nation of Israel during the millennial period, but sees all of God’s people as being of ‘one group’ or one single spiritual nation7.
THE HISTORICAL-GRAMATICAL METHOD:
I confess that I have some sympathy with the “historical-grammatical method” method, which is often said to underpin the premillennial and dispensational views, and I take no real issue with Cooper’s “Golden Rule of Interpretation” which defines ‘literalism’ as follows:
When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense; therefore, take every word at its primary, ordinary, usual, literal meaning unless the facts of the immediate context, studied, in light of related passages and axiomatic and fundamental truths, indicate clearly otherwise.8
However, although premillennialists and dispensationalists profess to employ a ‘historical-grammatical hermeneutic’ along the lines of the above rule; it is often those very ‘related passages’ and ‘fundamental truths’ that are either underplayed, overlooked or simply dismissed, when they fail to fit the premillennial / dispensational paradigm.
Even George Ladd, a modern proponent of “historic premillennialism,” and often criticised for his dispensationalist stance, nevertheless, took the view that, when it comes to interpreting Old Testament prophecies, “the ‘literal’ hermeneutic does not work. Old Testament prophecies”, he insisted, “must be interpreted in the light of the New Testament to find their deeper meaning.” Ladd did not see how it was possible to avoid the conclusion that “the New Testament applies Old Testament prophecies to the New Testament church and in so doing identifies the church as spiritual Israel.”9 [emphasis mine]
Hence, Sam Storms, in discussing the “hermeneutics of eschatology," lays down five interpretive assumptions, the first being that "Jesus Christ and his Church are the focal and terminating point of all prophecy." Storms also builds on the foundational truth “that Jesus is the true temple of God” to show how "the Old Testament finds its consummate fulfilment in the person of Christ and his body, the Church."10
But for premillennial dispensationalists, the ‘fulfilment’ is not to be found in the person of Jesus alone, but in a restored physical nation of Israel, in which many of the Old Covenant rituals and ceremonies become, once more, not only prominent, but nationalistic in nature.
So, in the place of a faith that is now universal and spiritual, we are expected to find reintroduced the very nationalism which Jesus repudiated11 and the ceremonialism which Paul denounced12.
A ‘LITERAL’ INTERPRETATION?
The interpretive principle, employed by premillennial-dispensationalists, is the “grammatical-historical hermeneutic” method (articulated in a previous answer)13, which, while allowing for such things as types, symbols, figures of speech, and genre distinctions in language, professes to maintain a consistently ‘literal’ interpretation.
But a ‘literal’ interpretation is never a consistent position since premillennialists, amillennialists and postmillennialists all believe scripture should be interpreted literally, at times and figuratively at other times, depending on the context of the passage and related interpretive considerations.
The problem is that premillennialists and dispensationalists appear to read Ezekiel 40-48, as they do many of the Old Testament prophetic passages, through the lens of their narrow interpretation of Revelation 20. As Storms argues, the premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 has become so deeply embedded in the minds of its advocates that it borders on “unconscious assumption”14.
Quite apart from the fact that it is impossible to “square” the premillennial / dispensational view with the clear teaching of Christ and the Apostles (e.g. Paul tells us that “…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…” (1 Corinthians 15:50) yet, we are asked to believe that unregenerate men and women will form a large part of a so-called “millennium Kingdom”).
The Ezekiel text itself, if we take a ‘literal’ approach, doesn’t appear to support the premillennial view either.
WHAT THE TEXT ACUALLY SAYS:
The command to build the temple, described in the vision, appears to be directed specifically at Ezekiel himself and the exiles of his own day15 (Ezekiel 43:9;10-11; 18-25). The stated reason given in the text is: “...that they may be ashamed of their iniquities and let them measure the pattern…and if they be ashamed…show them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and write it in their sight, that they may keep the whole form thereof” (Ezekiel 43:10;11) [emphasis mine].
What these verses plainly state is that, if the Jewish exiles thoroughly repented and were ashamed of all their sins; they would respond in faith to the instructions given, upon their return from the captivity in Babylon. Ezekiel and his fellow exiles would not have been thinking of some distant future temple. They had experienced a deep sense of loss and had a strong desire to return to Jerusalem and to its temple; which Isaiah had already prophesied would certainly be rebuilt.16
From the text, we can know the following:
- The vision was for Ezekiel and his fellow exiles (43:9;10-11; 18-25).
- The instructions and details described in the vision were intended to inspire faith and bring about repentance on the part of the exiles (43:10;11).
- The system of animal sacrifices described in the vision are stated as being for atonement and for sin offerings (43:20, 22, 25; 44:24, 29).
- The instructions to build the temple, as outlined in the vision, are presented as being conditional on the response of the exiles (43:11).
As the stated conditions were not met, the temple described in the vision was never constructed and, as we shall see, was clearly never intended to be. However, the prophetic vision remained to point forward to a more glorious temple to come. One which would go beyond the narrow limits of the Law of Moses and provide greater access into the presence of God17 According to the New Testament, this has been fulfilled in Jesus, whom the New Testament reveals is the true temple of God (John 2:19-22; Hebrews 10:5).
But why the detailed instructions?
I am reminded of the story about the late Professor Haim Hanani of the Technion Institute of Technology. The professor once gathered together a hundred students and asked them to draw up a plan to construct a pipeline to transport blood from Ashdod to Eilat? (two Israeli cities located over 250 km apart).
The students did as they were instructed and started working on a solution right away. Using drawing boards and slide rules, they sketched out a design for a sophisticated pipeline, meticulously planned the route, taking into account the topography of the landscape, the pipe’s diameter, flow calibration, corrosion resistance etc.
When the students finally submitted their plans, Professor Hanani announced that they all failed the test, saying: “I did not ask to test your ability to plan a blood pipeline, but to examine your moral sensitivity. None of you asked whose blood will flow through the pipes, or who is asking to build it in the first place."18
The professor’s instructions, though specific, were never intended to be carried out, but were given purely to help his students think about and question what was being asked of them, as well as to test their ‘moral sensitivities’.
This is how the returning exiles were to understand Ezekiel’s prophecy and this is partly evidenced by the fact that neither Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah nor Nehemiah, who led the post exilic reconstruction work, made any reference to the instructions given to Ezekiel in his vision, nor appear to have regarded them as having any bearing at all on the actual temple building activity.
But why the detailed plans?
The idea that architectural plans may be used as an expression of something other than that of actual construction, is one which comes out of a long Christian tradition.
Haito, the abbot of Reichenau from 1806-1823 AD, sent to Abbot Gozbert a plan of an ‘ideal’ monastery at St Gall. The drawing was never intended to be built from, though it included everything from cloisters and cemetery to cow byres and infirmary. It was meant to be a visual embodiment of the Benedictine rule and, as such, its purpose was to promote meditation on the purpose of monastic life. Haito wrote to Gozbert: ‘believe that we drew it through the love of God for fraternal affection and for you to study.19
This is the spirit in which the details in Ezekiel’s prophecy are given. They are visionary, but point to a more perfect form of worship and to something greater than the physical temple that was built according to the instructions given through David (1 Chronicles 28:11; Matthew 12:6; John 4:24).
JESUS, THE TRUE TEMPLE OF GOD:
In Old Testament times, Israel worshipped and ‘met with God’, through the mediation of the priesthood, which mediatorship was not dependant on any direct personal influence with God but, rather, on an elaborate system of animal sacrifices, of which the priest was merely the official agent at the temple.
However, the New Testament makes plain that, to meet with God, to talk with him and worship him, we no longer come to a building made with hands. We come to Jesus who is the true temple of God. As Gary Burge states: “Divine space is now no longer located in a place but in a person.”20 (John 4:24; Acts 7:48–50).
The New Testament also teaches that the Church is the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13) and, as such constitutes the temple in which God is pleased to dwell (Ephesians 2:21-22; 1 Peter 2:5).
To reinforce this point, the apostle Paul conflates several Old Testament texts (Lev 26:11-12; Isa 52:11; Ezek 11:17; 20:34,41; 2 Sam 7:14) which prophesied of a coming temple, one of which is the following:
I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people (Ezekiel 37:26-27).
The New Testament puts it this way:
… Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?
If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (2 Corinthians 3:16-17). What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's (6:19-20).
A SUPERIOR REVELATION:
Surely the overall integrity of scripture is seriously undermined when any hermeneutic fails to be holistic in its approach. For those who believe that all scripture: “…is given by inspiration of God” (1 Timothy 3:16), any individual text of scripture needs to be understood in the light of the whole biblical narrative and, particularly, for Christian believers, in the context of the New Testament revelation of Jesus as God’s final word (Hebrews 1:1-2) and the prophesied Christ” (Acts 2:36).
Unfortunately, this is precisely what the “historical-grammatical method,” as employed by premillennialists and dispensationalists, often fails to do; and this is especially true in the case of Ezekiel’s temple prophecy.
For Christians, the New Testament is not a just a supplementary addition to the writings that make up the Jewish Tanakh. It, serves, as it were, “as the ‘lexicon’ of the Old Testament’s eschatological expectation.”21
It is the revelation of the new man, Jesus, “the last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45), replacing the first, who was merely “…a pattern of the one to come” (Romans 5:14 NIV). It is in Christ that all previous revelation finds its fulfilment, and through whom all previous revelation must be understood (Luke 24:44). The New Testament speaks of a ‘new creation and a new order (2 Corinthians 5:17) and these “axiomatic and fundamental truths” need to guide our understanding of what was spoken of by the Old Testament prophets.
For example, the letter to the Hebrews (1:1–3) affirms that, whereas, in times past, God spoke to the people of Israel “…in fragmentary and varied fashion…by the prophets” (Hebrews 1:1-3 ISV), the revelation that has come through Christ is more complete and authoritative because he is more than a prophet, but “the reflection of God's glory and the exact likeness of his being.” It is a revelation of the new order in Jesus Christ, in whom all previous revelation finds its fulfilment, and through whom all previous revelation must be understood.
It is the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews (e.g., 10:1–18) which speaks of the cross of Christ as a termination of the efficacy of “the blood of bulls and goats”, such animal sacrifices as those Israel offered in the temple.
If Ezekiel’s vision applied to a time yet future, why would we again find the offering of animal sacrifices?
The dispensationalist answer is that the millennial sacrifices will not be intended to atone for sins. The blood of Christ precludes any need for that. Just as the Old Testament sacrifices anticipated the death of Christ as a future event, it is suggested the future millennial sacrifices will commemorate the death of Christ as a past event. However, as explained above, the text of Ezekiel, precludes such an interpretation, since the various sacrificial offerings in the temple are said to be sin offerings to “make atonement for the house of Israel” (45:17 YLT). Thus, the sacrifices described by Ezekiel are presented as atoning sacrifices and not as memorials. So much for a 'literal' interpretation.
Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper to commemorate and proclaim his death (1 Cor. 11:24–26). The idea that God would replace this with the blood of animals; a sacrificial system in which God was never pleased (Ps. 40:6; 51:16; Heb. 10:6) is irreconcilable with the New Testament witness.
It is not hard to see how employing a theological framework, such as dispensationalism demands, leads inevitably to a particular ‘handling’ of Ezekiel 40-48, by which, plain New Testament teaching to the contrary notwithstanding, the text is constrained to fit a “millennial" context.
NOTES: (Scripture references AV unless otherwise stated)
 The Revelation 20 passage makes no mention of Christ reigning on this physical earth with his saints for 1,000 years, or of a bodily resurrection of saints. It refers to souls, not bodies, being raised to life, which it described as “the first resurrection” and which it contrasts, not with a ‘second, bodily, resurrection’, but with “the second death” (Rev 20:4; 6)
 See Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative; Mentor 2013; Storms, Sam; Chapter 5
 I am aware that I am generalising here. Not all premillennialists hold to a dispensationalist paradigm and not all dispensationalists share the same perspective as to how Ezekiel’s prophecy is to be interpreted (e.g. there are dispensationalists who do see Ezekiel’s temple as ‘literal’ but see the sacrificial system and other details described by Ezekiel as ‘symbolic’ – see Ironside, Dr. Harry; Ezekiel the Prophet, pp. 327,328, Loizeaux Brothers, 1949)
 “Ladd was a notable, modern proponent of Historic Premillennialism, and often criticized dispensationalist views” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eldon_Ladd
 Chafer, Lewis Sperry – Dispensationalism - Dallas Seminary Press 1936 p.107
 Ryrie, Charles C. – Dispensationalism Today Chicago Moody Press 1965 p.45
 “A major difference between historic and dispensational premillennialism is the view of the church in relation to Israel. Historics do not see so sharp a distinction between Israel and the church as the dispensationalists do, but instead view believers of all ages as part of one group, now revealed as the body of Christ. Thus, historic premillennialists see no issue with the church going through the Great Tribulation, and they do not need a separate pre-tribulational rapture of some believers as the dispensational system requires” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_premillennialism
 Cooper, David L. The World’s Greatest Library Graphically Illustrated (Los Angeles: Biblical Research Society, 1970), 11
 Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism” in Robert G. Clouse, ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert. G. Clouse, InterVarsity Press, 1977)
 Storms, Sam: Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative; Mentor 2013; p.16
 “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence’” (John 18:36) - N. T. Wright says this in his book Mark for Everyone: “Part of Jesus charge against his fellow Jews was that Israel, as a whole, had used its vocation, to be a light for the world, as an excuse for a hard narrow, nationalist piety and politics in which the rest of the world was to be not enlightened but condemned.”
 "To Paul's great sorrow, the church at Corinth has been infiltrated by the devastating plague of ceremonialism" – MacArthur, John: 2 Corinthians MacArthur New Testament Commentary p.94
 ScottS - Oct 15 '14 at 19:56
 Storms, Sam: Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative; p.142
 “[Ezekiel 43:19] suggests that the temple would be constructed in the prophet’s own lifetime, since it was Ezekiel himself who was to provide the animals for the priests to offer in the temple and it was Ezekiel who would prepare the daily sacrifice (46:13). But due to the Jews’ selfishness and lack of spirituality, they failed to respond in faith; unlike Abraham to whom God also gave clear and specific instructions (i.e. to go and sacrifice his son), saying: “…Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you;” Yet, we know from the account in the book of Genesis that God had no intention of allowing Abraham to carry out these instructions, but, rather was testing the patriarch’s faith and providing a shadow of what he himself would later do, when he “…spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all.”
 Isaiah 44:28 “This prophecy, which thus speaks of Cyrus by name, as foreknown and appointed by the divine counsel for the performance of the great work designed by providence, is one of the most remarkable contained in Scripture…” Benson, Joseph - Commentary of the Old and New Testaments
 Ezekiel makes no mention of a veil covering the entrance to the Holy of Holies in his vision of the temple and neither is there described a wall of partition between the outer and inner courts, which, inevitably, bring to mind New Testament references such as the following: (Matthew 27:51; Ephesians 2:14)
 Gideon Levy; The Punishment of Gaza; p.87. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/blood-pipeline-what-can-planners-learn-from-one-smart-lior-steinberg/
 Wolfgang Braunfels; Monasteries of Western Europe: The architecture of the orders – Thames and Hudson 1972 (Quoted in the magazine: The Third Way, January 1986 Vol 9 No. 1, P.23)
 Burge, Gary – Jesus and the Land: The New Testament challenge to Holy Land; Grand Rapids 2010, p.52
 Storms, Sam: Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative; Mentor 2013; p.30