Let us be very clear - the series of prophecies in Eze 37-48 involves a temple, city and nation that never existed and thus, far, never has existed. Whether it will ever exist is another matter, but we must keep the following in mind.
- the nation of "Israel" as described in the last chapters of Ezekiel is the entire nation of Israel involving all 12 tribes plus all the levites; Eze 37-39
- God and the "prince" will rule over the nation and all the nations of the earth; Eze 37-39
- The entire world will be at peace with all people serving God and the "prince" and no one profaning the name of God
- The description of the wall and its outer court with a large gate in each has never existed; Eze 40.
- The description of the new temple with wall six cubits thick, rooms for the priests, etc, has never existed; Eze 41, 42
- God's glory has never returned in the fashion described in Eze 43
- The description of the great altar is far grander and larger than any that previously existed in Eze 43
- Eze 44 also describes a restored priesthood. (This is not possible because all records of the dependents of the levites have been lost.)
- Eze 48 describes the division of the land among the tribes of Israel which is not possible given the geography of the land around Israel
- Eze 47 describes the river flowing from under the threshold of the temple that becomes a great river too deep to wade through and heavily stocked with fish. Again, this is not possible in literal terms.
All that one can say about this prophecy of Ezekiel is that it cannot be literal in this life for the reasons stated above, nor the life to come because we already know that the New Jerusalem does not contain a temple, Rev 21:22. Further because there is no death in the New Earth or heaven there can be no altar of burnt offering.
[Further, for much of the material in Eze 37-48 (especially Ch 37) to be fulfilled literally, would require major divine miracles such as that described in Zech 14:4. Not that this should be discounted for that reason!! However, there are other matters that prevent this being literally true as stated above - no temple and no death in the New Jerusalem.]
Thus, the purpose and function of this prophecy is much debated. It is safest to assume that this material in the final chapters of Ezekiel should be read spiritually. Certainly, the NT alludes to this on a number of occasions with deep theological lessons such as:
- "the river of the water of life" (Rev 7:17, 22:1, 6, 17 see also John 4:14, etc) appears to allude to the river in Eze 47
- "Gog and Magog" (Eze 38) make an appearance in Rev 20:8
- Many believe Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem through the eastern gate may have been at least a partial fulfillment of Eze 43:4, but this is contentious.
- The NT teaches that the levital priesthood is no fulfilled in the "priesthood of all believers" as taught in 1 Peter 2:9, 10.
All the descriptions in Eze 37-48 should be understood spiritually and not literally, including the description of the great altar in Eze 43.