Readers of the Old Testament tend to hurry through the closing chapters of Ezekiel. The preceding chapters have been filled with great excitement. Chapter 37 contained the famed vision of the valley of dry bones while chapters 38–39 told of the thrilling offensive of Gog and Magog against the people of God. The closing chapters now focus on a strange vision of a rebuilt temple, which has invited all sorts of speculation.
Chapters 40–42—the text before us this morning—describe the measurements of the temple structure and many of the different elements thereof. One reason for the abundance of speculation is that the structure doesn’t quite match what we know of the temple that was rebuilt after the exile. The assumption, particularly by interpreters of a more literalistic persuasion, is that this must be a temple yet in our future. In fact, the theological thrust is not quite so literalistic.
The theological significance of this temple’s description is the reversal of God’s abandonment of his people, which had culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem. As Ezekiel had witnessed God’s presence leaving the temple in Jerusalem (chapter 10), so he would witness that glory returning to the temple (chapter 43). The impression once receives from this temple, with its strong walls, is that it is a fortress intended to keep out anything that would profane it.
As you read these chapters, it appears that the primary function of this temple was to offer sacrifice, whereas a large emphasis of Solomon’s temple was to serve as a place of prayer (1 Kings 8:28–54; Isaiah 56:7). That is not to say that the rebuilt temple was not a place for prayer, but the emphasis in these particular chapters is on sacrifice. Indeed, the altar itself—the only piece of furniture noted in the courtyard—stands at the geometric centre of the vision, solidifying sacrifice as the central theme of the vision.
As uninteresting as temple measurements and rooms are to the modern reader, this must have been fascinating for Ezekiel, who was a priest himself (1:3). But the theological significance of this vision is one that should interest us. By this vision, God communicates to his people that he will restore their worship. But not only will he restore it; he will do what is necessary to protect and guard the worship. And he will provide the means of sacrifice necessary to guard the worship and ensure that it is never again interrupted as it was in the Babylonian exile.
Many interpreters have noted that the biblical world is notably built on temple imagery. Scholars have observed that the creation account uses language that is most frequently, if not exclusively, elsewhere used to describe the temple. The garden, as it were, was the temple in which God placed his first worshippers. Immediately after the fall, we read the first manmade sacrifice in Scripture, which ironically resulted in the committal, rather than the expiation, of sin. Job served as something of a priest to his family. Abraham was known to set up altars.
Of course, Moses built the tabernacle, the prototype of the temple, which was later made more permanent by Solomon. During Ezekiel’s ministry, that temple was destroyed, but the promise of these chapters is that temple worship would be reimplemented. But the temple in this vision was quite different to Solomon’s because worship would not simply revert to previous forms. A new kind of temple was necessary—one that Iain Duguid describes as “a temple with radically raised walls, radically heightened standards of holiness, and a radical focus on sacrifice.”
By the time we reach the New Testament, the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s temple becomes evident. In the incarnation, Jesus tabernacled with humanity (John 1:14) and became the very fulfilment of the temple (John 2:21). Ezekiel’s temple focused on sacrifice, and Christ came in human form to be the sacrifice that would secure worship for God’s people for all time. In Christ, God’s people find eternal cleansing from their sin.
In the era in which we live, of course, the church becomes God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16–17). When God’s people gather as a church—as his temple—we recognise the difference between the holy and the profane and commit afresh to separate ourselves from that which defiles us. All of this culminates in Revelation’s new Jerusalem, where the Lord Jesus Christ is himself the eternal temple, having once sacrificed himself for the eternal salvation and eternal holiness of all who would believe in him (Revelation 21:22–27).
We, indeed, live in a very temple-centred world. In this world, we are called to be priests of God, worshipping and serving him even as we point others to him as God’s true temple, calling them to trust in him and enter New Jerusalem with us.
As you meditate on Ezekiel 40–42 this morning, thank God that the sacrifice emphasis of these chapters has found its fulfilment in Christ. Ask for grace to live as a priest of this new temple, acceptably worshipping God and drawing others to worship him with you.