Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Vision of the New Temple in Ezekiel 40–48

I sometimes wonder if life would be easier to endure just by switching off whenever the news is being broadcast. How many instances of sadness, suffering, and death bombard us each day through the avenue of the daily news, whether it be on tele, on the radio, or in the newspapers? Yet even if we were able to cut ourselves off from the suffering of others, we can’t cut ourselves off from ourselves, and our own experience of suffering. Even though we believe in God, the world situation and our own personal problems, whether it be problems in the family, financial difficulties or bad health, these things can easily drag us down.

Back in the sixth century B.C., there were many Jews who were having a hard time. A large number of the Jewish people had been captured by enemy forces, and taken over 1,000 km away from their homeland to live in a foreign land. They had become exiles. Furthermore, they knew that Jerusalem, the capital city of their country, had been burnt to the ground; and this included the temple, their most sacred site. I’m sure, if we were to put ourselves in their shoes, we’d feel absolutely terrible; and perhaps even on the verge of depression.

And for people of faith, the suffering (if anything) is intensified, because God’s character and purposes are called into question. Hadn’t God promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would bless their descendants, the people of Israel? But now the terrible reality in which Israel found herself—defeated and destroyed—it was the complete opposite of blessing. Instead of blessing, they felt like they’d been cursed. Had God changed his mind about Israel? Is it that God had had enough to the point that he’d turned his back on his people and his promises towards them? Or maybe God was still for them, but just didn’t have the power to bless his people as he had promised. Was God too weak to keep his promise of blessing?

Ezekiel too would have been deeply concerned about such issues. He was destined to be a priest by occupation; but now the temple had been destroyed. He was out of a job, and had lost his homeland. But even more important than any personal hardship was the question of God’s faithfulness to his people.

The book of Ezekiel, like most of the Old Testament prophetic books is concerned to answer such questions. Through the prophetic books, we are assured that the problem of the suffering of God’s people does not exist because of a problem in God. It’s not that God is not faithful, or that he is not powerful enough. God is not the problem.

But if God is not the problem, who or what is? The answer is clear. The problem actually lies with us and our attitude to God. The problem is humanity in rebellion against God. The Bible teaches that all human suffering ultimately stems from the fact of human disobedience. The ultimate cause of suffering is sin. And when sin gets hold of God’s people, as it did Israel of old, then disaster is on its way. When sin gets hold of God’s people, there will be judgment. We see an example of this principle with the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 B.C. What happened to Israel at this stage was a replay of what happened to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but on a much larger scale. We’re no longer talking about just two people, but a whole nation which was removed from God’s presence, and who suffered greatly in the process!

Even if you’ve never suffered from depression, all of us have had our moments of being sad and sorrowful. Apparently there’s a Chinese proverb that says: “a day of sorrow is longer than a month of joy.” How true that is! How time seems to drag on when things are going wrong. Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse, went through a stage in her life when she was deeply depressed. Four years before she went to a city in present-day Turkey during the Crimean War as a nurse to look after wounded soldiers, she wrote: “O weary days, O evenings that never end! For how many long years I have watched the drawing-room clock and thought it would never reach the ten! ... In my thirty-first year I see nothing desirable but death.”

When things are going wrong, we’re often tempted to despair of life. We start to doubt God’s goodness, or to doubt his power, or even at times to doubt his very existence!

But thanks be to God that in the middle of the sadness and depression of life, God is ever ready to give us a vision of a better future. In 573 B.C., 24 years after Ezekiel had been taken off in exile to Babylon, and fourteen years after the complete destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Ezekiel was given a grand vision of the nation of Israel restored to life in the holy land. This wonderful vision is recorded in Ezek 40–48.

In these chapters we read that Ezekiel was taken in the Spirit to the land of Israel, and placed on “a very high mountain,” and on this mountain was a city. This is seen in Ezek 40:2. We have here, like in the early chapters of Genesis, a holy land, a mountain sanctuary. We should note that the mountain sanctuary in Ezekiel’s vision has a number of things in common with the garden of Eden. Like Eden, Ezekiel’s mountain has streams of water flowing from it (Ezek 47:1–12). Significantly, however, the underdeveloped garden has now developed into a city (Ezek 40:1–2); and best of all, the name of the city is Yahweh-shamah, which means the Lord is there (Ezek 48:35—the very last verse of the book). This permanent presence of the Lord contrasts with the garden of Eden, where God used to come to visit only once a day. But at the end of history, as Ezekiel sees it, the garden of Eden will have developed into a city; and this city will be the center of the world as God always intended things to be when he originally created the world. God created this world with the intention that it would be his temple palace, where in the end, after the ups and downs in this love story between God and humanity, God would come to dwell permanently to have eternal fellowship together with the special creature made in his image, us human beings.

So wonderful is the prospect of God coming to live again with his people that the description of this temple palace is savoured in quite some detail in Ezekiel. Next in the vision, recorded in Ezek 40:3, we see an angel, who looks like a surveyor with measuring instruments (a cord and a rod) taking Ezekiel on a tour of the city. Ezekiel was taken on this tour in order that he might tell “the house of Israel” what he saw (Ezek 40:4).

Now the content of what Ezekiel saw is recorded in the next seven and a half chapters (from Ezek 40 to the middle of Ezek 47). The first stage of the tour involved Ezekiel following the angel surveyor as he measured the dimensions of this new temple. The general impression is one of grandeur, although the dimensions of the sanctuary of Ezekiel’s temple importantly were identical to the dimensions of the sanctuary in Solomon’s temple, the one that had recently been destroyed. The meaning of all of this is clear. The temple had been destroyed, but God promised Israel that it would be rebuilt!

After the measurements were completed, Ezekiel was brought back to the east gate, from where he saw “the glory of the God of Israel” coming from the east, from over the Mount of Olives where God’s glory had temporarily withdrawn while Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezek 43:2). According to this verse, the “sound of [the Lord’s] coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory.” According to Ezekiel in Ezek 43:3, this new vision of God’s glory was identical to the vision of the likeness of God’s glory that Ezekiel previously saw leaving the temple, back in Ezek 1–10.

Once again we see that this vision is a prophecy given by God to assure his people that there would be a new temple as the focal point of a new land, to which God’s people would return to dwell in security and peace, and to which God himself would also return to dwell forever more among his people. God would return to his people! This is the significance of Ezek 43. God’s glory entered into the temple, and the temple was filled with God’s glory (Ezek 43:4). Ezekiel then heard God himself speaking from inside the temple. As recorded in Ezek 43:7, God identified this new temple as being his eternal dwelling place among his people Israel. This is, as God put it, “the place of my throne, and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people of Israel for ever.”

God had allowed the first temple to be destroyed as part of his judgment upon rebellious Israel; but in the end, there would be another temple. This is the significance of this vision. God’s plan to dwell in the midst of his people forever would not be annulled by the sinfulness of his people. In the end, God’s glory and presence will be present among his people.

Now maybe you’re thinking: well, this is an interesting vision, and I can see its significance, but when is this new temple going to be built? Well, it’s true that there are some Christians who think that this vision of Ezekiel’s is a prophecy that is going to be fulfilled literally when the so-called third temple is built. The first temple, built by Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. The second temple, built by Ezra and friends, and renovated by King Herod, was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. From the year 70 on, the Jews haven’t had a temple. Some believe that the third temple is on its way. The only problem is that there’s currently a Muslim shrine right on top of the place where any third temple would have to be built. It couldn’t be built without first destroying the Muslim Dome of the Rock, but doing that would possibly cause World War III.

Today there are people around who are promoting the building of the third temple. One of these groups calls itself the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement. On October 16th 2000, this movement planned to anoint and lay the cornerstone for the Third Temple; but due to the tricky political situation at the time, the Israeli authorities decided that the ceremony couldn’t be performed. Instead, the crowd could only congregate in the Western Wall Plaza to march together and demonstrate. As they did so, they swore faithfulness to the God of Israel, to his word, to the Temple Mount, to Jerusalem, and the land of Israel. They promised to never give up their “godly historical task to rebuild the House of God on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem.” They think that this temple must be rebuilt before the Messiah comes. This movement isn’t a big group in Israel; but they receive significant support from some evangelical Christians that have similar views.

Is this vision of the new temple in Ezek 40–48 the architectural design for a third temple that will be built in Jerusalem? Well, a third temple might be built in Jerusalem—we’ll have to wait and see, but 2 Thess 2:4 possibly suggests that there will be—yet a careful reading of Ezek 40–48 shows that, in giving Ezekiel this vision, God has used language familiar to Ezekiel and his fellow Jews in exile to speak about how God would return to dwell among Israel, but in a greater and more permanent way than before. By way of contrast with the old temple, where the most holy place was confined to the inner sanctum of the temple, the whole of the new temple, and even the land surrounding it, would be considered to be “most holy” (Ezek 43:12). Also, the geographical location of the tribes is “rearranged” so that you have six of the twelve tribes of Israel situated to the north, and six tribes to the south, putting the sanctuary right in the centre of Israel. This is an idealized picture of Israel, different from the old historical arrangement where there were two tribes located to the south, and ten tribes to the north. There would also be a river of life emanating from this temple that would bring life to the fish in its waters and to the fruit trees along its banks, and the fruit of these trees would be used as food, and its leaves for healing (Ezek 47:1–12). Furthermore, the city would have twelve gates, each bearing the name of one of the tribes, and the name of the city would no longer be Jerusalem but Yahweh-shamah. These differences suggest that more is involved here than just a physical third temple.

We also need to consider how the New Testament interprets this vision, particularly in the book of Revelation. The vision of the New Jerusalem (as it’s portrayed in Revelation) has much in common with Ezekiel’s new city, and can be viewed as a reinterpretation of Ezekiel’s vision. That the two visions are basically the same can be seen in that they both portray the city as having twelve gates with the names of the tribes of Israel inscribed on them. They both have the river of life, and fruit trees that provide healing. But the two visions differ in one very important aspect. In Rev 21:22, we read John saying: “But I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”

In Ezekiel’s vision, the temple was the focal point; but in John’s vision, the temple is identified totally with God, and in particular with Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain but who lives again. In this way we see that the Apostle John understood that the temple in Ezekiel’s vision is not the architectural design of a third temple, but rather a picture of the new creation described in terms of a temple with Christ at its core. The intriguing detail in Ezek 44:1–2 about the permanent closing of the eastern gate proves our point: “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it” (Ezek 44:2), the implication being that God has entered the temple never ever to leave again. It is as if God had said: “Shut the doors; I’m never going anywhere again!”

In other words, the new temple in Ezekiel is a picture of God coming to dwell permanently with his people. It is a vision of the new creation, which Christians believe has been fulfilled in the Lord Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection was the commencement of the building of the new temple, and through him we await the full revelation of the new temple, of the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness will dwell. In Jesus, the glory of God has returned from his temporary withdrawal over the Mount of Olives to enter permanently into the heavenly temple, which one day, in God’s good timing, will be located on earth.

It is appropriate that this last vision in the book of Ezekiel, the very last vision given by God to Ezekiel (as far as we know) corresponds to the very last vision recorded in the Bible. Both of these visions are a picture of heaven on earth. Here we need to understand that heaven on earth, Emmanuel, is actually God’s end purpose for the world. The final picture we get in the Bible, in the book of Revelation, is the New Jerusalem with God’s throne coming down out of heaven to be established on the new earth. Emmanuel, God with us.

This is what Ezekiel’s vision is about. It’s a picture of the kingdom of God. It’s a picture of God and humanity reconciled. God is there among his people, eternally so, because, as we read in Ezek 43:7, God’s people would never again defile God’s holy name by idolatry. Through the outpouring of God’s Spirit, their hearts will have been changed. And with the transformation of the human heart would come a transformation in the relationship between God and humanity.

Thomas More, Lord Chancellor in England at the time of the Reformation, once said: “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” Is there sorrow in your heart today? Do your days feel weary and your evenings endless? How many times has the thought of the clock ticking over driven you to despair? How many tears? How many instances of death have you had to face? But the heavenly vision tells us of a time when God will comfort his people, when “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying or pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). After judgment and exile, there will be a new temple. God will not abandon us forever. The light of his heavenly glory will shine among us, and we and the world will be transformed.

We human beings might try to seek comfort in various places, but heaven is the only place that can heal our earthly sorrow. God gave Ezekiel this vision to assure all of God’s people that God’s plan for the coming of his kingdom, God’s plan for the ultimate unity of heaven and earth, will be achieved. This vision of heaven on earth has been given, not only because it’s good to know where we’re heading, but also because its has the power to cheer the heavy heart. We know that for us in the here and now, the full reality of heaven on earth is still off in the distance. At times it might feel as if God has abandoned us, but this is not true. Think about how God’s glory has returned to us in the person of Jesus, and think about the unveiling of the fullness of his glory at the return of the Lord Jesus, when heaven and earth will finally be one.

The only solution to our tears is the vision of heaven which God promises us through Ezek 40–48 is the eternal destiny of our planet! So in the midst of sorrow, when the walls are tumbling down, meditate! Meditate day and night on the wonderful promises of God! Bring to mind daily the thought of better things to come, the thought of a new temple, who is the Lord himself, dwelling together with us forever and ever and ever more! Always remember that in Jesus, Yahweh-shamah! This vision of heaven on earth can bring true comfort to the sorrowful, as well as motivate us to flee from all forms of idolatry, to trust solely in God, and to worship him as we ought.

1 comment:

John Thomson said...

Good Steven. Worth noting it was a 'vision' and none of Ezekiel's other visions are fulfilled literally. Indeed visions rarely if ever are.