By Reed Benson
Not long ago, I was asked to comment on the meaning of the animal sacrifices in Ezekiel's temple. What was the purpose of them, my inquisitive friend wanted to know. Haven't animal sacrifices been abolished since we now enjoy the benefits of Jesus' perfect sacrifice on the cross at Calvary? And if that is so, what are the sacrifices in Ezekiel's temple accomplishing?
For those unfamiliar with Ezekiel's temple, please take note of the last nine chapters of the book of Ezekiel. There, from chapters forty through forty-eight, is an extensive description of this structure: detailing walls, gates, tables, a great altar, as well as the manner in which the priests function, performing sacrifices of animals. It tells us the priests will be the "sons of Zadok" (Ezekiel 44:15), the temple itself will be larger than either Solomon's or Herod's temple, and it will be situated in the center of a re-gathered nation of Israel, with allocated geographical territories of no small size for each of the twelve tribes. This temple has never existed in the past, but surely will in the future and is a key feature of the millennial kingdom established by Jesus after His return.
Sacrifices of Thanksgiving?
One potential solution seems to be a quick and sensible answer to this query regarding these sacrifices. Perhaps these were not sacrifices for sin, but were sacrifices of thanksgiving. This sidesteps any insinuation that somehow Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was insufficient. While it is axiomatic that Christ's sacrifice was perfect and absolutely sufficient, a quick review of the salient passages eliminates the possibility that these were sacrifices of thanksgiving: "And thou shalt give to the priests the Levites that be of the seed of Zadok, which approach unto me, saith the Lord GOD, a young bullock for a sin offering" (Ezekiel 43:19). "Seven days shalt thou prepare every day a goat for a sin offering: they shall also prepare a young bullock, and a ram out of the flock, without blemish" (Ezekiel 43:25). "And the priest shall take of the blood of the sin offering, and put it upon the posts of the house, and upon the four corners of the settle of the altar, and upon the posts of the gate of the inner court" (Ezekiel 45:19). Not only are there sacrifices in Christ's millennial kingdom, but seemingly they are for the purpose of dealing with the problem of sin.
Some Bible scholars find the entire conversation pointless to pursue. It is their opinion that all nine chapters describing Ezekiel's temple and the activities associated with it to be allegorical. They (and “they” does include good minds of the past, including such illustrious scholars as Matthew Henry of commentary fame) assert that we need not vex ourselves about the meaning of the details, for this vision was given to us to teach broad moral principles only. However, this is a troubling solution, for if the intention were meant only to instruct the reader toward sweeping moral lessons, why would Ezekiel have bothered recording for us all of the minutia he included? Furthermore, what are these moral lessons? The proponents of this allegorical interpretation, known today as Amillennialists, never really say, not even Matthew Henry. They simply change the subject and move on.
Additionally, there is an even more problematic issue to deal with for those who wish to allegorize Ezekiel's temple and the functions thereof. Ezekiel is not the only Old Testament prophet to foresee a renewal of the sacrificial system. No other prophets offer the detail he does, but the references to it are plain enough for a sharp eye. Consider the following passages.
"Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people" (Isaiah 56:7). Here Isaiah plainly prophesies of a coming time when God will be in the business of accepting proper sacrifices, unlike those He roundly condemns in the first chapter of Isaiah.
"In those days shall Judah be saved and Jerusalem shall dwell safely: and this is the name wherewith she shall be called, The LORD our righteousness. For thus saith the LORD; David shall never want a man to sit upon the throne of the house of Israel; neither shall the priests want a man to offer burnt offerings, and to kindle meat offerings, and to do sacrifice continually" (Jeremiah 33:16-18). This description of the glorious restoration of Israel includes not only the preservation of the throne of David and the priesthood, but also sacrifices.
"For the children of Israel shall abide many days without a king, and without a prince, and without a sacrifice, and without an image, and without an ephod, and without teraphim; Afterward shall the children of Israel return, and seek the LORD their God, and David their king; and shall fear the LORD and his goodness in the latter days" (Hosea 3:4-5). This passage covers a lot of ground! For our purposes, however, note how the things that were lost shall be restored in the latter days—including the central features of the Mosaic sacrificial system.
"In that day there shall be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD; and the pots in the LORD'S house shall be like the bowls before the altar. Yea, every pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be holiness unto the LORD of hosts: and all they that sacrifice shall come and take of them, and seethe therein: and that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the LORD of hosts" (Zechariah 14:20-21). Again, this passage is broad based, but the words pots, bowls, sacrifice, and seethe show that there will be sacrifices offered in the future restored kingdom of Israel in the great millennial temple.
"But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he is like a refiner's fire, and like fuller's soap: And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness" (Malachi 3:2-3). This final statement tells the reason the priesthood, the sons of Levi, must be purified: so they can offer righteous, wholesome sacrifices.
Based on the these five passages, any plain reading of the prophets tell us that they expected the sacrificial system that had been corrupted in their time to be re-instituted and performed honorably at the coming of the Great King and the establishment of His kingdom.
The Purpose of Old Testament Sacrifices
So far we can conclude two points. First, literal sacrifices will be made in the coming millennial kingdom when Jesus returns to reign as the Greater David. Second, they will be for sin, which means there must be sinners on the scene. The millennial world will be different from the Eternal Age that follows the thousand years, for in the Eternal Age there will be a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1), no death or pain (Revelation 21:4), no temple (Revelation 21:22), and no curse (Revelation 22:3). Under these conditions it is only logical to conclude there will be no sin, thus no sinners and hence no bloody sacrifices. All will be perfected. But, the thousand year millennial kingdom is not like that. There is a perfect King—but He rules over an unruly world with a rod of iron to keep folks under dominion (Revelation 2:27, 12:5, 19:15). While Satan is bound and the millennial kingdom is greatly improved over the one we now inhabit, it is not sin free. And it is evident that there is a great temple, the one Ezekiel saw, where sacrifices will be routinely offered.
But staying focused on our initial line of thought, we return to our foremost question: what will be the purpose of these future sacrifices? Further reflection on this question stimulates another line of inquiry: what was the purpose of Old Testament sacrifices? Is it possible that the function of Mosaic sacrifices was the same as that of the future sacrificial system that Ezekiel envisioned? Of course, this challenges a common assumption about the Old Testament sacrificial system: the idea that the blood of the sacrificial animal cleansed a person of sin and thereby conferred to him eternal life. Or to put it another way, most people presume that Samuel, David, and all other Old Testament saints were saved through the power of the bloody sacrifice they obediently brought to the altar. Is this true?
It is not. Hebrews 10:4 is clear on this point. Written for Israelites still connected to the Mosaic sacrificial system, the book of Hebrews is meant to show the limitations of the Law and explain the completed work of Christ in atonement. Thus Paul wrote, "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins" (Hebrews 10:4). Elsewhere Paul infers this by describing how Christ's sacrifice on the cross was the means by which "sins that are past," that is, the sins of Old Testament saints, were cleansed by Jesus' atoning work: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God" (Romans 3:24-25).
This was not new information. Wise ones from the Old Testament period knew that they were not saved by obedience to the law; nor were they saved by the sacrificial animals they brought to the priests for ritual slaughter. The prophet Micah stated this: "Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6:6-8). What was more important than the law or sacrifices? Humility, mercy, justice—in a word, repentance! Although the prophets never suggested the Law should be disregarded, nor did they ever infer that sacrifices should be abandoned, they taught that God would provide a way to receive people if their hearts were filled with humble repentance and faith. Obedience to the law was not enough, and sacrifice was not enough; but acknowledging that they were filled with sin and needed help—these were the missing elements.
So why did wise Old Testament saints bother at all with sacrifices? Here is the key: because they were ritual acts of obedience that were meant to symbolize a heart of humility that acknowledged one's own sinfulness. Furthermore, they were memorials of God's great deliverance of the past, such as the saving of the firstborn from the death angel through the Passover Lamb. And, just as important, they were commemorative images of the prophesied Great Redeemer’s future deliverance from sin.
They fulfilled the exact same function that ritual acts of obedience do for us in the New Testament era. Baptism and Holy Communion are the two rites that call for us to appear before our God in a formal manner as acts of obedience that symbolize a heart of humility and a recognition of our own sinful condition.
Although baptism does not confer eternal life if the heart of the person undergoing this ritual is not tender before God, it is nonetheless a necessary act of obedience every genuinely repentant believer will be pleased to perform (Mark 16:16). Only the blood of Jesus' perfect sacrifice can atone for sin and bestow eternal life. Similarly, the ritual slaughter of a calf in the Old Testament never gained salvation of the soul. Yet all who had humble trust in Jehovah were pleased to participate in the bloody ritual that acknowledged and symbolized their own sinful state.
Who Will Need Sacrifices in the Future?
Regarding the sacrifices offered in Ezekiel's great temple in the millennial kingdom, it is only reasonable that they will be fulfilling the same function they did in the Old Testament and that which Baptism and Communion now satisfy. This role is a necessary, symbolic memorial that points to Jesus’ perfect, sinless sacrifice on the cross on Calvary's hill. There is no other biblically logical purpose for them.
So, who will need such sacrifices?
Let us answer this by first clarifying who will not have any obligation to participate in such rituals. All of the saints of past ages up to the return of Jesus Christ will be granted the great privilege of a glorified body and purified soul. "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16). These perfected saints will be redeemed, and with a new nature implanted within them, will be sinless, ruling and reigning with Christ over a world that needs an immense amount of straightening out. They will not be participating in the ritual bloody sacrifice of animals in the new temple. However, they will be celebrating the communion supper as a remembrance of God's great grace. This is what Jesus prophesied: "And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my father's kingdom" (Matthew 26:27-29).
Those who will have need of ritual sacrifices performed in the temple of Ezekiel by a freshly purified Levitical priesthood are Israelites who will be living in natural bodies. Yes, there will be many Israelites that pass directly into the millennial kingdom in bodies exactly like those all of us have at present. They will live, reproduce, and die as we do now (Isaiah 65:20). A call to repentance will go forth to them, and some will heed it and enjoin in the renewed sacrificial system that memorializes the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Others will ignore it, just like many stubborn Israelites did in Old Testament days. The millennial kingdom will be remarkably like the one we live in now: the essential difference is that there will be a perfect sinless King, His many resurrected assistants in glorified bodies, a cleansed priesthood, and no Satan roaming free. And while these are important distinctions from our present condition, in every other respect the world will be the same: filled with droughts, floods, natural decay, and large numbers of sinful people still eager to do their own will and fulfill their own sinful lusts.
If you are still having trouble with the thought that sacrifices will be part of the future, remember Jesus’ own words: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled" (Matthew 5:18). The new heaven and new earth will not be present until the end of the millennial kingdom; thus, all the law is in force, even sacrificial law. As odd as it may seem, the primary reasons we cannot offer sacrifices today is that we are not in the land of Israel, have no proper temple, have no qualified priesthood, and, being covenantally divorced from Jehovah, we have not the means to resolve these deficiencies. Remember that any such sacrifices, just like those offered in the Old Testament and in the future kingdom, would be, in theological jargon, merely commemorative, not efficacious.
Inhabitants of Christ's Millennial Kingdom
People of all races will be present in this millennial kingdom and called by some of the same names of nations that exist today. Peoples other than true Israelites will be obliged to recognize the rule of Jesus Christ as master of the earth and obey the laws of the kingdom; anything less would be rebellion. Some will yield willingly enough and obey the universal commands regarding work, the criminal codes, the sabbath of rest, and even a measure of festival observance. Others will do so grudgingly, thus falling under King Jesus' rod of iron. This is plain enough in the words of the Prophet Zechariah: "And it shall come to pass, that everyone that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles. And it shall be, that whoso will not come up of all the families of the earth unto Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, even upon them shall be no rain. And if the family of Egypt go not up, and come not, that have no rain; there shall be the plague, wherewith the LORD shall smite heathen that come not up to keep the feast of tabernacles. This shall be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all nations that come not up to keep the feast of tabernacles" (Zechariah 14:16-19). The presence of "heathen" nations at Tabernacles has nothing to do with individuals of these nations ever obtaining covenant status—that is and always will be exclusive to Israel; but it has everything to do with the tribute and respect we must show to a global King by emissaries from His conquered foes. Failing to appear annually at the feast of Tabernacles is an act of civil insurrection in the empire of the Greater David. It is furthermore quite obvious that some conquered nations will only reluctantly acknowledge the authority of King Jesus, because they will eagerly join in the titanic rebellion that Satan launches at the end of the thousand years of order. Read Revelation 20:7-9: "And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison. And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, God and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of he saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them." Ezekiel also foresaw this final rebellion and described it in chapters thirty-eight and thirty-nine.
Thus, the biblical evidence indicates there are three categories of people in the millennial kingdom that contains the great temple Ezekiel envisioned. First, there will be many resurrected and glorified saints who will not participate in the bloody sacrifices in that temple but will commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross when they join Him in communion supper. Their larger purpose will be to help administer the civil laws that govern this worldwide empire. Second, there will be many Israelites steadily increasing their numbers in natural, sinful bodies like ours now. As an aristocratic class on planet earth, their lives will be pleasant and prosperous. They will choose to yield to God's call for repentance or not, just as we today must respond. Those who desire to honor God with a humble heart will do so through the restored ritual sacrifice with the help of a cleansed priesthood of the seed of Zadok. Such sacrifices will not actually remit sin, but will point a repentant person to the perfect sacrifice our Savior made on Calvary. Third, many races and nations on the earth today will be there and will be compelled to give obeisance to the King of all the earth reigning on David's throne, Jesus Christ. All of these non-Israelite nations will be living and dying in natural bodies of sin, but they will flourish under the perfect governance that has never before existed on earth. The wiser among them will be pleased to acknowledge the rule of their global monarch, while others will need the application of the "rod of iron" from King Jesus.
The wondrous justice of the millennial kingdom is that Jesus Christ will be the epicenter of all the affairs of man. The ancient monarchy that ultimately failed under Saul, David, Solomon, and subsequent kings will be completely superseded and nearly forgotten in the glory of the Greater David. As the sinless Passover Lamb, our beloved Savior will be the central focus until the thousand years come to an end and the utterly sin-free Eternal Age begins with a new heaven and earth. "Then cometh the end," when the Son of God "shall have delivered the kingdom to God, even the Father" (1 Corinthians 15:24). Even so, come quickly, King Jesus!