John W. Schmitt and J. Carl Laney wrote a very helpful book on Ezekiel’s Temple which describes it in detail. They see this as a literal temple to be built in the future in Jerusalem in the time of the millennium. Schmitt has made a detailed model of the temple. Their interpretation of Ezekiel’s prophecy reflects their dispensational theology.
Lambert Dolphin in his article The Temple of Ezekiel writes, “The prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 40-48) describes in great detail a temple in Israel that is much too large to fit on the present Temple Mount site. The Temple of Ezekiel proper measures 875 feet square, and it sits in the middle of a large consecrated area Ezekiel’s temple is also very different in many details from any previous temples that have existed in Israel (or elsewhere). Therefore most Bible scholars believe there will one day exist in the Holy Land a Fourth or ‘Millennial’ Temple.” (www.templemount.org/ezektmp.html) He goes on to write, “According to many Christian Bible scholars, the Fourth Temple (Ezekiel 40-45) will be ‘memorial’ – a teaching center apparently to instruct men about the holiness of God and proper worship during the coming kingdom of Jesus on earth. As sinful men and women continue to be born into the world in the millennium, the temple is supposed to remind everyone of the substitutionary death of Jesus on the cross, as the ‘Lamb of God’ some two thousand years earlier.” (www.templemount.org/ezektmp.html) Again, Dolphin as Schmitt and Laney reflects in his interpretation of the temple his dispensational theology. This interpretation is very popular today among evangelicals.
An older interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision is reflected in Matthew Henry’s Commentary. He sees in this vision a promise of a new literal temple for the exiles in the not too far distant future in their homeland but he also sees in the vision a prophecy of the time of the Messiah which was to come about when Jesus came the first time. Matthew Henry writes, “The general scope of it (Ezekiel’s vision) I take to be, 1. To assure the captives that they should not only return to their own land, and be settled there, which had been often promised in the foregoing chapters, but that they should have, and therefore should be encouraged to build, another temple, which God would own, and where he would meet them and bless them, that the ordinances of worship should be revived, and the sacred priesthood should there attend; and, though they should not have a king to live in such splendor as formerly, yet they should have a prince or ruler (who is often spoken of in this vision), who should countenance the worship of God among them and should himself be an example of diligent attendance upon it, and that prince, priests, and people, should have a very comfortable settlement and subsistence in their own land. 2. To direct them to look further than all this, and to expect the coming of the Messiah, who had before been prophesied of under the name of David because he was the man that projected the building of the temple and that should set up a spiritual temple, even the gospel-church, the glory of which should far extend that of Solomon’s temple, and which should continue to the end of time. The dimensions of these visionary buildings being so large (the new temple more specious than all the old Jerusalem and the new Jerusalem of greater extent than all the land of Canaan) plainly intimates, as Dr. Lightfoot observes, that these things cannot be literally, but must be spiritually, understood. And the gospel-temple, erected by Christ and his apostles, was so closely connected with the second material temple, was erected so carefully just at the time when that fell into decay, that it might be ready to receive its glories when it resigned them, that it was proper enough that they should both be referred to in one and the same vision. Under the type and figure of a temple and altar, priests and sacrifices, is foreshown the spiritual worship that should be performed in gospel times, more agreeably to the nature both of God and man, and that perfected at last in the kingdom of glory, in which perhaps these visions will have then full accomplishment, and some think in some happy and glorious state of the gospel-church on this side heaven, in the latter days.” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ezekiel, p. 980)
In Matthew Henry’s understanding of the vision of Ezekiel’s temple, he sees its ultimate fulfillment not in a literal millennial temple but rather in the gospel church which Christ set up when He came the first time. Jesus talks of building His church in Matthew 16:18. This seems also to fit the message of the New Testament which speaks of the church as a temple or building. Paul says in Ephesians 2:19-22 – “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Paul also says in 2 Corinthians 6:16, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” It is interesting to note that Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.” Here “you” is plural in the Greek and refers to the church or God’s people collectively not as individuals.
This seems to be a clear teaching of the New Testament that the church is now the temple of God. How much we have gotten away from that teaching is reflected in the emphasis today on the rebuilding of a literal temple in earthly Jerusalem. It seems that many evangelicals have abandoned the old view as seen in the writings of Matthew Henry that the church is the prophesied temple of Ezekiel not some enormous millennial temple to be built in the future in Jerusalem.
It seems that Paul warned us against putting too much faith in an earthly Jerusalem in Galatians 4:25-26 – “Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.” He was contrasting salvation by law and salvation by grace. Our salvation is not to be found in an earthly Jerusalem but in the Jerusalem that is above. This Jerusalem above is our true home and it is equated with the church in Hebrews 12:22-24 – “But you have come to Mount Zion to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirit of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Now, let’s look at a few specific passages in these chapters of Ezekiel on the temple. We have established our view that the whole picture here is not ultimately of an earthly temple but of the church in gospel times. Though, it does give promise of the rebuilding of the temple that had been destroyed in earlier days. Yet, it points further to the times of the Messiah that is the coming of Jesus and the establishment of the church in gospel times. Ezekiel 43:9-10 give a key as to why this description of the temple was given to Israel. We read, “Now let them put away from me their prostitution and the lifeless idols of their kings, and I will live among them forever. Son of man, describe the temple to the people of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their sins. Let them consider the plan.” This vision description of the temple was not necessarily only for the purpose of giving a detailed prophecy of a future temple but to make the people aware of their great sins and to bring them to repentance. By showing them this future temple, God was calling them to repentance. Matthew Henry writes, “He calls upon them to repent and reform, and, in order to that, to be ashamed of their iniquities: ‘Now let them put away their whoredom; now that they have smarted so severely for it, and now that God is returning in mercy to them and setting up his sanctuary again in the midst of them, now let them cast away their idols and have no more to do with them, that they may not again forfeit the privileges which they have been taught to know the worth of by the want of them. Let them put away their idols, those loathsome carcasses of their kings, far from me, from being a provocation to me.’ This was seasonable counsel now that the prophet had the model or pattern of that temple to set before them; for, 1. If they see that pattern, they will surely be ashamed of their sins; when they see what mercy God has in store for them, notwithstanding their utter unworthiness of it, they will be ashamed to think of their disingenuous conduct towards him. Note, The goodness of God to us should lead us to repentance, especially to a penitential shame. Let them measure the pattern themselves, and see how much it exceeds the former pattern, and guess by that what great things God has in store for them; and surely it will put them out of countenance to think what the desert of their sins was.” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ezekiel, p. 992) It seems from this passage that one of the main reasons for giving the people of Israel this detailed description of a future temple was to bring them to repentance. Whether one believes the description is of a literal future temple or of the church, the message is the same. Schmitt and Laney write, “…God wanted Ezekiel’s description of the future Temple to cause the exiles to be ashamed of their iniquities. The description of the Temple was designed to lead them to repent over their past and determine to honor God in the future.” (Messiah’s Coming Temple, p. 79)
Another passage that we want to look at concerns the law of the temple. Ezekiel 43:12 says, “This is the law of the temple: All the surrounding area on top of the mountain will be most holy. Such is the law of the temple.” In the tabernacle and the first two temples, the inner room behind the curtain was the most holy place. It was only there that the high priest entered once a year. It was in that inner room where the presence of God or Shekinah Glory appeared over the mercy seat in the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. In Ezekiel’s temple, not just the inner room or most holy place but all the surrounding area on top of the mountain would be most holy. There seems to be some indication here of a coming time when the presence of God will be more widespread in the world and a time of increasing holiness in the world. This passage along with Zechariah 14:20-21 give a similar message. There it says, “On that day Holy to the Lord will be inscribed on the bells of the horses and the cooking pots in the Lord’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord Almighty.” Holiness will be much more widespread. Isaiah 11:9 points toward a time when the holy mountain of the Lord will cover the earth. “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This increase of holiness in the world at the least points toward the gospel age when the people of God would be found in many nations all over the world and may also point to a greater increase of holiness in the future as the gospel increases and prevails in the world.
Matthew Henry writes on the Law of the Temple (Ezekiel 43:12}: “The general law of God’s house is laid down, that, whereas formerly only the chancel, or sanctuary, was most holy, now the whole mountain of the house shall be so; the whole limit thereof, including all the courts and the chambers, shall be as the most holy place, signifying that in gospel times, 1. The whole church shall have the privilege of the holy of holies, that of a near access to God. All believers have now, under the gospel, boldness to enter into the holiest (Hebrews 10:19), with this advantage, that whereas the high priest entered in the virtue of the blood of bulls and goats, we enter in the virtue of the blood of Jesus, and wherever we are, we have through him access to the Father. 2. The whole church shall be under a mighty obligation to press towards the perfection of holiness, as he who has called us is holy. All must now be most holy. Holiness becomes God’s house forever and in gospel-times more than ever. Behold this is the law of the house; let none expect the protection of it that will not submit to this law.” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ezekiel, p. 993)
Another passage that we will look at is found in Ezekiel 47:1-12. This passage tells of living water flowing from the temple giving life wherever it goes. It starts out as a small stream and then becomes a great river. Verse 6 says, “Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.” This passage is similar to Zechariah 14:8 which says, “On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter.” What then is the meaning of the water flowing out of the temple giving life to all wherever it goes? Could this not be symbolism for the gospel going out from the church into all the world giving life to all who believe it. It seems that Matthew Henry takes that interpretation when he writes, “This part of Ezekiel’s vision must so necessarily have a mystical and spiritual meaning that thence we conclude the other parts of his vision have a mystical and spiritual meaning also; for it cannot be applied to the waters brought by pipes into the temple for the washing of the sacrifices, the keeping of the temple clean, and the carrying off of those waters, for that would be to turn this pleasant river into a sink or common sewer. That prophecy, Zechariah 14:8, may explain it, of living waters that shall go out from Jerusalem, half of them towards the former sea and half of them towards the hinder sea…Most interpreters agree that these waters signify the gospel of Christ, which went forth from Jerusalem, and spread itself into the countries about and the gifts and powers of the Holy Ghost which accompanied it, and by virtue of which it spread far and produced strange and blessed effects.” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ezekiel, p. 1008)
This passage says that large numbers of fish will live where this river flows. Are we seeing here the spread of the gospel all over the world with ever increasing fruitfulness?
One final passage concerns the distribution of the land among the Israelites. This is Ezekiel 47:21-23 – “’You are to distribute this land among yourselves according to the tribes of Israel. Your are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who have settled among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native-born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the alien settles, there you are to give him his inheritance,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.” Matthew Henry comments on this passage, “The strangers who sojourn among them, who shall beget children and be built up into families, and so help to people their country, shall have inheritance among the tribes, as if they had been native Israelites, which was by no means allowed in Joshua’s division of the land. This is an act for a general naturalization, which would teach the Jews who was their neighbor, not those only of their own nation and religion, but those, whoever they were, that they had an opportunity of showing kindness to, because from them they would be willing to receive kindness. It would likewise invite strangers to come and settle among them, and put themselves under the wings of the divine Majesty. But it certainly looks at gospel-times when the partition-wall between Jew and Gentile was taken down, and both were put upon a level before God, both made one in Christ, in whom there is no difference. This land was a type of the heavenly Canaan, that better country, in which believing Gentiles shall have a blessed lot, as well as believing Jews.” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ezekiel, p. 1011)
In this passage, we get a glimpse of the gospel age when both Jews and Gentiles would become God’s people together. No longer would only Jews be considered God’s people but the Gentiles would also come into the people of God. To the people of Ezekiel’s time it would be a mystery but in New Testament times it would be fully revealed as Paul writes in Romans 16:25-27 – “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made know through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him – to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
How then do we read Ezekiel’s temple? Many will take it as a literal description of a future temple to be built for the millennium. This view is popular today and will probably continue to be so. Older evangelicals such as Matthew Henry quoted several times above would see Ezekiel’s description as mostly symbolic of the future gospel age. In my opinion, this older view is a better read. The church is now the temple of God and sends forth its message of living water into all the world inviting all to come to Christ both Jew and Gentile.
There seems to be some indication of an increasing spread of the gospel in this vision as the water flows out from the temple in gradually increasing amounts until it is a river so deep that no one could cross. It gives life wherever it goes. It is interesting to note that in the 17th, 18th, and most of the 19th centuries the dominant view among evangelicals was that the gospel would eventually prevail in the world until the whole world would be won to Christ. In the later part of the 19th century a more pessimistic view became increasingly dominant and the optimistic view of earlier evangelicals was dismissed. Today, that pessimistic view continues to dominate among evangelicals who do not see the victory of the gospel in this age as our forefathers once envisioned.
William Carey, for example, looked ahead to a time when the gospel would prevail among the peoples of the world and a latter day glory would come into being. He saw his mission to prepare for such a day. He wrote, “The Bible is now translated into, and printed in, the following languages: Sanscrit, Bengali, Mahratta, Orissa, Hindostani, Guzeratti, Chinese, Seek, Telinga, Kurnata, Burman and Persian….The languages on the continent, into which a translation is not yet begun, are, Nepaul, Bhootan, including Thibet, Assam, Arrakan, Pegur, Siam, Cambodia, and, perhaps, two or three more, of which I am not informed. In the islands, they are numerous; viz., three languages in Sumatra, one, at least, in Java, that of Borneo, Timor, perhaps ten more in the Moluccas, that of the Philippines, and a few others; in all about thirty. Should God spare our lives, we may possibly engage in those of the continent, if our means will suffice. The Chinese, now under translation, includes that of Cochin-China, and the Japanese. All this must be done, and men must be provided to carry these translations to the different countries, before the millennium, which cannot be far off.” (Memoir of William Carey, D. D., p. 335) William Carey was not talking about the millennium in today’s popular sense as taught by dispensational teachers but rather as a time near the end of this age when the gospel would predominate in the world. This was what he was preparing for. He saw all these Asian language translations of the Bible as needed to prepare for the great victories of the gospel yet to come. On December 31, 1805, Carey wrote, “This year God has increased us with thirty persons added by baptism; twenty-seven of them natives, and three Europeans. Several of our native brethren have gifts for preaching the gospel, and are much more useful in this work than we are. I hope a few more are inquiring the way to Zion, with their faces thitherward. O that the Lord may greatly increase their number, and carry on his cause till all India, and the whole world, are obedient to the faith!” (Memoir of William Carey, D. D., p. 322)
Dr. Samuel Miller, professor at Princeton Seminary, wrote in 1822 when America was in the midst of the Second Great Awakening – “That there is a time coming, when this world, so long the theatre of rebellion against God, and of all that complicated suffering which is the natural offspring of such rebellion, - shall be restored to the reign of truth, and purity, and peace and blessedness, is, if I am not deceived, the almost unanimous expectation of all who bear the Christian name. And that this blessed renovation of our world will appear, in all its glory, in less than two centuries from the present time, it also, if I mistake not, generally agreed, even among those who place it at the greater distance: and some pious and learned interpreters of prophecy believe that it is nigh, even at the door.” (Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry , Volume 1, p. 431-432) Here he reflects the dominant outlook among evangelicals of that time of the anticipation of the victory of the gospel in this age. Dr. Miller then quotes several passages of scripture such as Habakkuk 2:14 – “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” He goes on to write, “These precious and animating Scriptures have never yet been fulfilled. They plainly imply, that the period is approaching, when there shall be a general prevalence of the profession and the power of religion (Christianity) over the whole earth. Not that every Christian will then be perfect, or even every professor of piety, truly pious: but that the visible church shall fill the world; that all infidelity, heresy, superstition, profaneness, and open vice, shall be banished from the earth; and that religion (Christianity) shall be everywhere honored, and every where prosperous.” (Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, Volume 1, p. 432) He went on to point out that this would not come by human effort or human laws but by the supernatural work of God through the preaching of the gospel. He says, “None of these things, then, can bring on the latter-day glory, or, by themselves essentially meliorate the condition of man in this world…It is by the preaching of the gospel by men, like ourselves, that the prophetic Scriptures every where represent it as to be expected. It is when the rod of Jehovah’s strength shall be sent out of Zion, that the nations are to be made willing in the day of his power.” (Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, Volume 1, p. 436-437)
Robert Morrison, first Protestant missionary to China, labored for seven years before seeing his first convert. He wrote in his journal on July 16, 1814 – “At a spring of water issuing from the foot of a lofty hill by the seaside, away from human observation, I baptized him…May he be the first of a great harvest, one of millions who shall believe and be saved.” (The Shaping of Modern China, Volume 1, p. 53) The first Protestant Christian had been baptized in China and Robert Morrison envisioned millions to follow though he would not see them in his life time. Today, there are probably at least 75 million Protestant Christians in China in a nation of 1.3 billion. Surely, Morrison’s vision is coming to pass and there are many millions more to come if we share his vision for the future.
It would seem that Ezekiel’s temple is being built now and its building is ongoing. The water is flowing from that temple and will increase more and more giving life as it goes forth into the world. It is not a literal temple made of stone and timber but a spiritual temple being built by Jesus Christ Himself and indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Could it be then that Ezekiel’s temple is a symbolic representation of the gospel age and the church as an ever increasing force in the world? If so, there is still much work to be done and we must not give over our world to Satan and his forces but we must ever be advancing carrying forth the gospel into all the world bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.
All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (1978) unless indicated otherwise.Broomhall, A. J., The Shaping of Modern China, Volume 1, William Carey Library, Pasadena, CA, 2005.Carey, Eustace. Memoir of William Carey, D. D., Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, Boston, 1836. Dolphin, Lambert. The Temple of Ezekiel, www.templemount.org/ezektmp.html, 2004.Garretson, James M. Princeton and the Work of the Christian Ministry, Volume 1, The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA, 2012.Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. IV. – Isaiah to Malachi, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1712.Schmitt, John W. and Laney, J. Carl. Messiah’s Coming Temple, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997.