Question: "What is the significance of Ezekiel's temple?"
Answer: Ezekiel was born into the priestly line (Ezekiel 1:3), but he served God as a prophet. In Ezekiel 40–48 Ezekiel sees a detailed vision of a grand and glorious temple. This lengthy vision has been the subject of much speculation and various interpretations through the years.
Ezekiel began his prophetic ministry before Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Babylon in 586 BC. Prior to the destruction, many false prophets assured the people that God was with them and that nothing would happen to them (Ezekiel 13:8–16). True prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel warned the people that God’s judgment was coming (Ezekiel 2:3–8). In Ezekiel 8–11, the prophet sees the glory of God leaving the temple.
In exile, he encouraged Israel that judgment would not last forever, but that God would restore Israel and once again live among them. In Ezekiel 37 he relates the vision of “The Valley of Dry Bones,” in which he describes the reunification and reanimation of a dead Israel. In chapters 38–39, Ezekiel predicts a battle with Gog and Magog, in which Israel’s enemies are defeated. Then, in chapters 40–48, in the twenty-fifth year of Israel’s captivity, Ezekiel describes an enormous new temple (chapters 40–42). The glory of God returns (chapter 43), sacrifices are resumed (chapters 44–46), and the land is restored to the people of Israel (47–48). The hearts of the people will have been changed (Ezekiel 36:26–27), and even Gentiles have a place in the restored kingdom (Ezekiel 47:22). The land will be ruled by a Davidic Prince (Ezekiel 44:3; see also 37:24–25; 34:23–24).
In his vision of the temple, Ezekiel is taken to Israel where he sees a mountain and a city. He is met by “a man whose appearance was like bronze; he was standing in the gateway with a linen cord and a measuring rod in his hand” (Ezekiel 40:3). The man tells Ezekiel to pay careful attention to everything he sees and hears and to relate all the details to God’s people (verse 4). The measuring of the layout of the temple complex fills the next three chapters of Ezekiel.
The question is when and how will the vision of Ezekiel’s temple be fulfilled? Should we look for a literal fulfillment? Or is this vision symbolic of the future perfection of God’s presence among His people? Has it already been fulfilled? Or is the fulfillment still future? If Ezekiel’s temple is future, will it be fulfilled in the church age, the millennium, or in the eternal state? The answers to these questions will be determined, most likely, by the interpreter’s presuppositions regarding the literal or symbolic nature of prophecy and fulfillment.
Arguing for a literal fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezekiel’s temple are the numerous details of Ezekiel’s vision and the specific dimensions of the temple. If the vision is to be literally fulfilled, then the fulfillment must be future, for nothing like what is described in Ezekiel 40–48 has taken place up to this point. The dimensions of Ezekiel’s temple are far larger than the temple in Jesus’ day, and that temple was a grand structure.
Most who expect a literal fulfillment of Ezekiel’s temple expect it to be erected in the millennial kingdom, a 1,000-year reign of Christ upon the earth. During the millennium, glorified saints from the present age will live in contact with natural human beings who will still need to make a decision for Christ in order to be saved—and many will choose not to trust Him. The sacrificial system described in Ezekiel cannot be for the forgiveness of sins, for Christ has accomplished that once and for all (Hebrews 10:1–4, 11–14). In this interpretive approach, the sacrifices are seen as memorials of Christ’s death or as rites for the ceremonial cleansing of the temple, but not as a means to forgive sins.
In the figurative view of Ezekiel’s temple, the prophet’s vision simply reiterates that God will once again dwell with His people in a perfect relationship. This relationship is described in the language that the people of the day (and especially for Ezekiel as a priest) would have understood—a Jewish temple of magnificent proportions, with regular, perfect sacrifices, with the Messiah presiding, and with the glory of God visibly evident. In later visions to other prophets, God revealed more about how He would accomplish this with the Messiah Himself replacing the temple, the sacrifices, and the land. The presence of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit would be more immediately evident than ever before. The fulfillment of Ezekiel’s temple could thus be realized in the church age to some degree and, in the age to come, to perfection.
Regardless of which approach is taken, the vision of Ezekiel’s temple says that God has not forsaken His people and that His relationship with them will be restored and elevated to a new, never-before-conceived glory and intimacy. Present circumstances should never cause one to doubt the promises of God.