The issue came up in Sunday school last week whether the temple in Ezekiel’s vision in chapters 40-48 is a literal, physical building or a visionary representation of something else. The amount of physical detail given to the temple seems to indicate that it is intended to be a real, physical construction.
I believe the best way to read it is to recognize that Ezekiel is seeing a physical representation of another reality, not a physical building. In chapter 47 Ezekiel describes a river flowing from the temple. The further the river flows, the deeper the water gets. This is not something that we would expect to see in an actual temple build in Jerusalem. There are wells on the temple mount but they are deep underground so it is improbable that a river would well up from under the temple.
There are indications that the river is meant to picture something else. Not only does the water desalinate the ocean and the swamps and marshes, it multiplies animal life wherever it goes. The banks of this river team with trees that never drop their leaves and produce fruit monthly. Real trees don’t do that. The river is described in concrete terms just as the temple is yet the river is figurative so it seems consistent with the vision to understand the temple as figurative as well.
Since scripture helps us understand scripture, if the New Testament treats this vision as figurative then it is figurative. While there isn’t an exact citation of this vision in the New Testament, there are some tremendous similarities between Ezekiel’s temple and the city that John saw in Revelation 21. Consider: ((The Ezekiel/Revelation chart modified from The Road to Emmaus))
|Ezekiel’s Temple||John’s City|
|Set on a high mountain (40:1-2; cf., 8:3)||Carried up to a high mountain (21:10)|
|One with a measuring rod (40:3)||Angel with a measuring rod (21:15; cf., 11:1)|
|The temple is measured (40:5-42:20)||The city is measured (21:16-17)|
|The temple is a square (48:30-35; cf., 41:4)||The city is a cube (21:16)|
|There shall be sacrifices; worship is central (43:13-27; cf., 46:1-21)||The nations shall bring their glory and honor; worship is central (22:26)|
|No abomination in the temple (44:4-14)||Nothing unclean in the city (21:27; cf., 21:8)|
|Priests will minister before the Lord (44:15-31)||Priests unto God (21:18-20; cf., 20:6)|
|Twelve gates for the sons of Israel (48:30-34)||Twelve gates for the sons of Israel (21:12-13)|
|Water flows from the temple (47:1-5)||Water flows from the throne of God (22:1;cf., 21:6)|
|Trees bear fruit and provide healing (47:6-12)||Tree of Life bears fruit and provides healing (21:2)|
|God will have a place for his people (47:13-48:29)||The people’s place is the Lord (22:5; cf., 21:3-4, 7)|
|The Lord will be there (48:35; cf., 43:1-12; 45:1-25)||The Lord will illumine them (21:22-23;22:3-5)|
|There is no city described.||The city has no temple (21:22)|
The similarities seem to indicate that when John was shown “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb,” (Rev 21:9) he saw the same thing as what Ezekiel saw in his vision, that is, the Church.
Ezekiel’s imagery of God’s people as a temple with priests and sacrifices is consistent with the New Testament description of the Church. The Church is a temple (1Co 3:16-17, 6:19; Eph 2:19-22, 1Pt 2:5). We’re told to offer our lives as a living sacrifice to God. (Rom 12:1) Paul’s life of service is a drink offering poured out on the church’s faith. (Phil 2:17) His work gathering in the gentiles is an offering. (Rom 15:16, 2Ti 4:6) Our tithes and worship are sacrifices. (Phil 4:18, Heb 13:15) Likewise, Paul was acting as a priest in relationship to the gospel (Rom 15:16) and we are a priesthood (1Pt 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6, 5:10, 20:6).
Ezekiel’s vision of a temple represents something real through figurative language. I believe the reason Ezekiel spends so much time walking through and measuring the temple is impress us with the majesty of what the temple will be, not to lay out blueprints for it. That kind of writing is the best way he had to demonstrate the grandeur of what God will do when he restores his people. It is like the vision of the dry bones coming to life (37) and the stony heart of his people being replaced with a fleshly one (36:26-27) and washing them with clean water (36:24-25). If we understand Ezekiel’s temple in the context of this section of his writing, it is speaking of the restoration and purification of his people and that is exactly how we see the New Testament speak of the Church.