On today’s podcast, Greg received a question about the detailed vision of a temple at the end of Ezekiel (chapters 40–48)—specifically, about the section on offerings introduced by verse 45:22: “On that day the prince shall provide for himself and all the people of the land a bull for a sin offering.”
If this is a reference to the Messiah at the end of the age, then clearly this is a problem for Christianity because Jesus, “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God” (Hebrews 10:12). He won’t be offering any sacrifices in a future temple.
This is something I’ve looked into in the past, and interpretations of the chapters describing Ezekiel’s vision vary. Here’s a brief summary of a few different positions from the ESV Study Bible:
With regard to the meaning of this passage as a whole:
(1) Some interpreters understand this vision as a prophecy that will be fulfilled literally, with a rebuilt temple and Israel dwelling in the land according to its tribes—a future millennial kingdom on the earth.... Many who hold this position believe that literal animal sacrifices will be offered, but that in the future millennial kingdom they will function as reminders of the complete and sufficient death of Christ, a function different from what they had in the OT.
(2) Other interpreters see this vision of a new temple and a renewal of the land of Israel as an extended, detailed metaphor predicting the presence of God among his people in the new covenant age (that is, his presence in the church).
(3) Another view is that the vision predicts God’s presence among his people in the new heavens and new earth (cf. Isa. 66:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1), not as physical details that will be literally fulfilled but as symbolic indications of the great blessings of that future age. In this interpretation, the details about worship and sacrifices are symbols of the centrality of worship of God: the temple represents the orderliness and beauty of God’s heavenly dwelling place; the priests and their sacrifices represent the service and worship of all God’s people; the division of the land represents the allocation of places to live for all God’s people; and the river represents the outward flow of God’s blessings to his people forever.
(4) Finally, it is possible that there are both literal and symbolic elements in this vision, and that, as with the visions in Ezekiel 1, this vision describes future realities that cannot be fully expressed in terms of Ezekiel’s present realities. Almost all interpreters agree that Ezekiel 40–48 is one of the most difficult passages in the entire Bible.
It’s also possible the answer is simply this: Ezekiel’s vision conveys instructions, not predictions. There’s a clear break at the beginning of the vision in chapter 40 from the prophecy in chapter 39, and from this point forward, the chapters read like commands (“You shall do this,” “These are the statutes,” etc.), with warnings for the people to repent and follow these commands (e.g., 45:9), rather than descriptions of the future. Though the instructions for the building and running of a temple are given in a vision, the genre of the passage is more like the tabernacle instructions in Exodus than it is like the prophecy in the previous chapter. There’s no unconditional announcement in chapters 40–48 that this is what will take place. In fact, there’s a conditional element introduced in 43:9–11:
Now let them put away their harlotry and the corpses of their harlotry and the corpses of their kings far from Me; and I will dwell among them forever.
As for you, son of man, describe the temple to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure the plan. If they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exits, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes, and all its laws. And write it in their sight, so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes and do them.
“If they are ashamed...let them....” “Now let them...and I will....” “Write it...so that they may observe its whole design.” In other words, these last few chapters are instructions God was calling the people to follow, conditional instructions with conditional results. They did not repent and follow them, and so the temple was not built and God did not dwell among them in this way. Instead, Christ came with His unconditional salvation, and the Lord filled His new temple (His people) with His Spirit in a way that far surpassed the way in which Israel failed.
They failed because, as fallen human beings, we’re not morally capable of the kind of obedience required to deserve the dwelling of God among us. This is what God taught all humankind through Israel’s history. We needed to understand that even when given perfect knowledge of all of God’s commands, we could never save ourselves through the Law because the problem lies in us. His Law doesn’t have the power to change our morally broken souls, and no merely human prince could perfect us with his sacrifices. We have an undeniable, absolute need for God’s merciful, undeserved redemption and regeneration. The purpose of Israel and all its history was to prepare the world for Jesus and the Gospel.
For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (Galatians 3:21–22)
For now, in terms of Israel, we remain in Romans 11:25–32:
[A] partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.... For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all.
And how beautiful that mercy will be!
Now if [Israel’s] transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be!...For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:15)