Ezekiel’s Temple Vision: The Most Puzzling Part of the Bible

Given what I wrote on Bible interpretation in my earlier post this week, I figured I would follow it up and write something on the vision Ezekiel has at the end of the book. Who knows? Some desperate soul might google “Ezekiel Temple” and find something that is actually helpful instead of the endlessly unsatisfying, enormous barrage of dispensational weirdness that is out there on this challenging, but fascinating topic. In any case, by writing this I hope to put to rest some of the pestering thoughts in my head on this topic. So now you also can enjoy some pestering thoughts…

There is no passage is Scripture that makes me scratch my head more that the end of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel closes his prophecy with nine chapters that give a detailed, elaborate vision of a temple. Ezekiel lives in Babylon and he is transported by a heavenly guide who reveals to him a magnificent temple with all the temple rituals going on inside. The temple is beautiful. There is a stream flowing from it. The vision contains detailed description of the animal sacrifices and the priesthood and operations in the temple. The vision tells us about “the prince” and it tells how the land will be divided up between the tribes of Israel. It is also details the measurements of the walls, gates, and courts, which, interestingly, are of different proportions than Solomon’s temple, which we read about in the history books.

The head-scratching part is that this temple has never been built. It wasn’t Solomon’s temple for that was already destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Furthermore, when the Jews came back from exile under Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah the temple they built utterly paled in comparison to Ezekiel’s vision.

Some have suggested that the temple was only ever hypothetical and conditional – it was a reality that would only happen if Israel had obeyed Yahweh. I want to reject that notion. It is an easy solution but it is simply not how prophecy works in the Old Testament. When God gives a vision, promising to do something, he always does it.

When you take this all together it makes us ask some hard questions: will this temple be built in the future? Is this temple some kind of symbolic portrayal of the church in Jesus?

There are actually two dominant views on the topic: many think that this temple will be built one day in the millennial reign of Jesus on earth. But that view has some big problems: why would animal sacrifice for atonement return under Jesus, especially since Hebrews says that it is done (Ezek 45:18; Heb 10:1-18)? Moreover, why, if the New Testament tells us we are the temple of God, do we need another temple for God’s presence will dwell – does he not already dwell in us by his Spirit (Rom 8)?

The other view is that this is simply a spiritual description of the Church, or the Church age, which is elsewhere called “the temple” of God (1 Cor 3:16; 1 Pet 2:5ff.). But if that is the case then why is there so much elaborate detail on animal sacrifices and priestly rituals and careful measurements? What do those symbols point to?

The first thing to say is that the challenges in this topic that are thousands of years old. In fact, around the time of Christ, there were Jewish Rabbis who had a very hard time dealing with this prophecy since Herod’s temple was being sacked. In a sense, this problem is pre-Christian. And that is reason to go slow on it. In fact, John Calvin, one of my heroes, never addressed this in his commentary because he died before getting to it…

With all that said, I want to propose that what Ezekiel is describing, in symbolic terms, is nothing other than the New Creation – the restoration of all things through Christ – the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Note that Ezekiel opened his prophecy with a vision of God’s presence on wheels, travelling to and fro around the earth (ch. 1-2). The point of that prophecy was to show the exiled people of God that God’s temple – his presence – is not anchored to one location, especially for a people soon to be living in Babylon. But now at the end of his prophecy we see that the temple – the dwelling presence of God – has come off it’s wheels and come to rest on the entire creation – a wasteland now turned into a tropical paradise. Context. Context. Context. The book points in this direction.

On top of that, the twin themes in Scripture of creation and temple (God’s blessing presence) are intertwined all through the Old Testament. The Garden of Eden, where God walked in the cool of the day, was a sort of temple that housed the presence of God. Furthermore, the temple contained all sorts of trees in it’s art and gold work – it harkened back to Eden. Moreover, the temple was where God sit enthroned between the cherubim – his shekinah glory radiated there. It is no coincidence that God places a cherib outside the temple…er…the Garden, after Adam’s sin.

Now some would object that this view simply does not do justice to the meticulous description of the temple in Ezekeil – if this is really portraying the New Creation than isn’t it deceitful to describe it in terms of a temple? Here are two supporting reasons based on the way God’s revelation works:

  • When God speaks he accommodates himself to the context, the culture, and the language of the people to whom he speaks. It makes sense for God to portray glorious New Covenant realities in Old Covenant terms like sacrifice, priest, and prince. To many this seems like a cop-out. But it isn’t. When God told Eve that her offspring would crush the head of the snake he wasn’t lying. But the snake is actually a dragon and the offspring is actually God himself. God accommodated his promise to language Eve would understand and trust in.
  • The vision itself is prophetic and apocalyptic, not legal or historical. One reason I believe that people get confused on this vision is that we are used to reading temple instructions and measurements in the Pentateuch or in Kings and so we switch into thinking that this apocalyptic vision is actually a legal code. But it isn’t. Apocalyptic imagery always has a degree of fluidity to it when you apply it to future or past events. For example, in Daniel the statue of iron, clay, bronze, silver, and gold is not a literal statue. The symbols represent reality of course – they represent empires – but the vision is not to be taken literally. And neither is Ezekiel’s vision.

Finally, this view rests on a symbolic understanding of the vision in Ezekiel and here are two final, supporting reasons for understanding this vision symbolically:

  • The vision has symbolic, or non-literal, aspects already. The stream flows and gives life to the land. That, I believe, is the key to grasping the meaning of this thing. The temple emits a stream that leads to the healing of the nations, the return of prosperity, plants, and animals, and ultimately to the portioning up of the land among God’s people (Ezek 47). When you contrast this language with the way Isaiah speaks it becomes evident pretty fast that this is highly eschatological language and it is highly new-creational language (See Isaiah 25 and 66).
  • The detailed measurements given to describe the temple have a clear purpose. The detail in Ezekiel’s temple vision is meant to do at least two things: it is meant to teach us something about the meticulous way God’s grace affects everything in the New Creation. Interestingly, we also have detailed measurements in the book of Revelation about the temple and that temple is in fact the “bride” of God that is inhabited by the glorious presence of God himself (Revelation 21). In this way, there is good precedent for taking the measurements of Ezekiel as pointers towards symbolic realities. They speak to the totality of God’s redemption and to his meticulous grace. Furthermore, these details are also meant to heighten the anticipation of Israel at the time of Ezekiel who are looking forward in hope for what God has in store – the details bolster their hope, just as the book of Revelation, with all it’s amazing detail, was given to Christians in the midst of intense persecution to bolster their anticipation.

 

So what I think Ezekiel foresees at the end of his book is nothing short of the New Creation, the Restoration of all things. This is glorious.

 

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Putting Your Bible Together with More Than a Hammer

 

If today’s Bible readers are like home builders, there are many who frame the house well but forget the drywall, the light fixtures, and the flooring. They have the skills to pound nails – important skills – but there is more to building a house than that. What I am talking about is a certain approach to Old Testament prophecy that looks at every prophecy as having an exact, literalistic fulfillment in the future. Everything has a one-to-one fulfillment or no fulfillment at all. It’s almost mathematical.

Now of course, that sort of exact, literal fulfillment happens all the time in the Bible. Let me give an example: when the Old Testament prophet Zechariah says, in chapter 9 verse 9, that Jerusalem’s king will come in “lowly and riding on a donkey” there is an exact fulfillment, a one-to-one correspondence, between that passage and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt 21). Jesus fulfilled that prophecy literally. His literal fulfillment of this prophecy, and dozens of others, validates his ministry as the Messiah, the Saviour-King of Israel. So this approach is fundamentally good, useful, valid, necessary, and needed.

Every house needs a frame – and all you need is a hammer and a strong arm to get going – but we must not end there. We need to rediscover a couple more tools in this area:

Tool 1: Corporate prophecy funnelling into individual fulfillment   

One of the key points in the opening of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus fulfills the identity of the people of Israel. That is to say, the corporate entity that is Israel (and Judah) is taken up, summarized, and recapitulated by Jesus the individual. This is no literal, wooden fulfillment. Matthew’s point is that the story of Israel is the story of Jesus. He fulfills every part of it. Jesus is the great sequel – the finale to what happened in Act One. Let me show you what Matthew says in 2:13-18:

“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked… [h]e sent men to kill all the children in Bethlehem and throughout the surrounding region from the age of two and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud wailing,
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted, because they were gone” (NET).

 

Herod was a maniac and a loose-canon, but God orchestrated his lunacy to fulfill, in Jesus, the promises he gave to Israel. In the first text, Matthew says that when Jesus’ parents took him to Egypt in hiding, their return fulfilled Israel’s exodus – the great, miraculous event when Israel, God’s “firstborn son,” was delivered from Egypt through the sea (Ex. 4:22). Likewise, when Herod the despot slaughtered all the little children, Matthew says that was, for Jesus, really a second exile – the text quoted (“weeping in Ramah”) is from Jeremiah 31:15 and is all about the exile when God’s people are taken captive to Babylon. Jesus fulfills that too.

So there you have it – Jesus fulfills the identity of Israel. This is no literal, mathematical fulfillment – it is the corporate identity and the story of the nation of Israel funnelled into the identity and life events of Jesus.

This is exactly the thing Paul is saying in Galatians 3:16 where he writes: “The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ” (NIV). Elsewhere Paul writes that “all the promises of God find their Yes in him” that is, in Christ (2 Cor 1:20). The point is exactly the same as in Matthew – Jesus individually fulfills all the promises spoken to Abraham. Jesus is the great recapitulater. This approach to Bible interpretation has many implications for us as we seek to put our Bibles together, so to speak.

And there is another tool to use:

Tool 2: Typology

Typology is a fancy word that simply means Old Testament people, images, or events point to, or foreshadow, New Testament people or images or events. In many ways this sort of pattern-fulfillment “typology” was the linchpin that held the Old Testament and the New Testament together in the minds of the New Testament authors. For example, in Romans 5:14 Paul says that Adam was “a type” (Greek: typos) of the one to come (Jesus). Adam brought death to all; Jesus, the second Adam, bring life to all. The idea is that Adam is a foreshadow of Jesus – Adam’s “anti-type.” David also fits this category. David is an anointed king. Jesus is an anointed King. God has layered history with pictures of Jesus before he even came on the scene. This sort of thing is all over the place – Paul says that when Israel drank from a rock that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). Jesus himself says that when he is lifted up on the cross he will save his people just like when Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that whoever looked on it would be saved (John 3:14-15).

The entire Bible points to Jesus. He is the anti-type – the fulfillment – of hundreds of Old Testament types:

  • Adam fell to temptation in a garden. Jesus resisted temptation, to the point of sweating blood, in a garden.
  • The Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness testing God. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness refusing to put him to the test.
  • David defeated a giant. Jesus defeated the giant.
  • Jonah spent three nights in a whale. Jesus spent three nights in the grave.

I could go on…

The idea is that the second thing we need to see is that the entire Old Testament story line is a magnificent, multi-faceted narrative that culminates in Jesus. The entire layering of Old Testament history is a straight line to Jesus.

So yes, there are many instances where Scripture shows Jesus fulfilling prophecy in an exact, literal way. But that is only one approach that the New Testament takes to the Old Testament. Without these other approaches it’s like we are building a house without drywall. We need to employ not merely a literalistic approach to Old Testament prophecy-fulfillment but also the great multi-faceted, narratival, and thoroughly Jesus-centered approach that the New Testament authors also used.

 

Authors You Can’t Go Wrong With

I thought I would post a quick blog on the authors that I really think are gold. If I see their name as I am perusing through a thrift store I buy their book immediately to read myself or to give away.

Practical/Devotional/Instructional

John Piper

Francis Chan

John Stott

J.I. Packer

Elizabeth Elliot

Jerry Bridges

Louis Priolo

Paul David Tripp

Anne Ortlund

Graeme Goldsworthy

Don Whitney

Martin Lloyd-Jones

Tim Chester

Alistair Begg

 

Academic

D.A. Carson

Thomas Schreiner

Alec Motyer

G.K. Beale

Kevin Vanhoozer

Richard Bauckham

Andreas Kostenberger

T. Desmond Alexander

Iain Murray

Bruce Waltke

John Sailhamer

Alexander Strauch

 

The Old Gold

Jonathan Edwards

John Owen

John Bunyan

Charles Spurgeon

 

Honourable Mention

Douglas Wilson (major disagreements on his covenantal theology as applied to children etc.)

John MacArthur (major disagreements on his rapture theology and cessationism)

Tim Keller (baptizes babies but otherwise awesome)

C.S. Lewis (wonderful but just says some weird stuff occasionally)

N.T. Wright (has some major problems [depending on how you understand him] regarding the nature of justification…but his sheer volume and academic rigor, not to mention his strong benefit on issues of the historicity of the resurrection, means that you shouldn’t Wright him off)

 

Who have I missed?