Ezekiel 40–48—How can these prophecies be understood literally when the NT declares that the sacrificial system has been abolished by Christ’s death?

Problem: Ezekiel seems to predict that, in the messianic period, the sacrificial system used by the Jews before the time of Jesus will be reinstituted (chaps. 40–48). However, the NT in general and the Book of Hebrews in particular is emphatic in declaring that Christ has by one sacrifice forever done away with the need for animal sacrifices (10:1–9).

Solution: There are two basic interpretations of this passage of Scripture. Some take it spiritually and others view it literally.

First, some argue for a spiritual interpretation that these sacrifices are not to be understood literally, but only as symbols or foreshadows of what was fulfilled in Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice on the Cross (Heb. 1:1–2). They give the following reasons for their view.

1. The NT teaches that Christ fulfilled and abolished the OT sacrificial system and priesthood (Heb. 8:8–10).

2. The Book of Revelation describes the Heavenly City of the future with no temple or sacrifices, only Christ the Lamb (21:22–27).

3. Ezekiel portrays the Gentiles as excluded from Israel’s temple, which is contrary to the NT teaching that Jew and Gentile are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:12–22).

4. The NT speaks of the church as a spiritual Israel in which OT predictions are fulfilled (Gal. 6:16; Heb. 8:8–10).

Those who object to this view point out, first, that this violates the normal, historical-grammatical way to interpret the text. Further, it illegitimately reads NT meaning back into the OT text, rather than understanding the OT text as it is written. They also argue that the sacrifices predicted by Ezekiel could be pointing back to the Cross, just as the OT ones pointed forward to it.

The literal interpretation looks to an actual restoration of the temple and sacrificial system, just as Ezekiel predicted it to be fulfilled during Christ’s millennial reign on earth (Rev. 20). They support their position with the following points:

1. Ezekiel presents a highly detailed description, with numerous measurements, and historical scenes that do not fit with a spiritual interpretation.

2. If this passage is spiritualized, then on similar grounds most of the OT prophecies could be spiritualized away, including the obviously literal ones about Christ’s first coming, which we know from their fulfillment was literal. The same, then, applies to His second coming.

3. The Bible distinguishes between Israel and the church (1 Cor. 10:32; Rom. 9:3–4). Promises unique to Abraham and his literal descendants, such as the Promised Land (Gen. 12:1–3), are not fulfilled in the church, but remain yet to be fulfilled in the future (Rom. 11; Rev. 20).

4. The picture in Revelation 21 is not that of the millennium (Rev. 20), but of the eternal state that follows it. Ezekiel’s prediction (40–48) will be fulfilled in the millennium. Later, in the new heaven and the new earth, there will be no temple or sacrifices.

5. The sacrifices mentioned by Ezekiel have no atoning significance. They are merely memorial in nature, looking back to the accomplished work of Christ on the Cross, much as the Lord’s Supper does for believers today.

6. The rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy will be fulfilled in a literal 1,000-year reign of Christ (Rev. 20:1–7) as He sits on a literal throne with His 12 apostles sitting on 12 literal thrones in Jerusalem (Matt. 19:28). If so, then there is no reason not to take the prophecy about the sacrifices as literal too.

7. The OT did not foresee how Jew and Gentile would be joined together (cf. Eph. 3:4–6), but it did envision that the Gentiles would be blessed (Isa. 11:10–16). Ezekiel’s presentation does not exclude this later revelation (cf. Col. 1:26).

8. The Book of Hebrews speaks only of abolishing animal sacrifices as in an atoning sense, not in a memorial sense.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.