Ezekiel 40-48: A Troublesome Temple Vision, Hermeneutics, and Jesus Christ | Brandt Athey

by | May 13, 2024 | Biblical Theology, Hermeneutics, Old Testament, Systematic Theology



In another sphere of life, the present author was privileged to sit under the teaching of a well-known veterinary cardiologist, Robert Hamlin. Professor Hamlin was a gifted researcher and clinician with a unique teaching style: case scenarios were laid out in all their gory detail––the relevant and the peripheral––with complexity often followed by confusion! Hamlin would famously break through students’ quiet cogitation with the helpful question, “What bothers you?” The question was really this: “What does not fit the pattern?” “What stands out as strange?” He asked the question because years of diagnostic experience taught him that information that seems to break with the pattern may be the key to solving the problem––it may be the very thing that makes sense of the whole case.

As in medicine, so in hermeneutics:[1] the texts most challenging to the interpreter––with elements that do not seem to “fit,” and which force him somewhere unexpected––are the very texts that often make sense of many other texts. Ezekiel 40-48, often called the “temple vision,” is a difficult case. “What bothers you?” The gory details are sometimes relevant and sometimes peripheral (e.g., Ezek. 40-42). “What does not fit the pattern?” Somehow, there are priests and Levites in what seems like an eschatological setting making sacrifices. “What stands out as strange?” The prince and priests are different people. If this is the end-time temple, where is the Lord Jesus? Questions could be multiplied.

The present study proceeds in three sections, trusting that interaction with difficult questions in Ezekiel 40-48 will lead to correct contextual and redemptive-historical interpretation. First, the problems are presented, then three possible solutions are outlined, and finally, the problem is solved. The thesis is simple: Ezekiel 40-48, though bothersome in the beginning, is only prophetic idiom pointing to the true Temple, the Lord Jesus, and His Spirit dwelling in His church. This text shapes the interpreter’s box into a Christ-centered box; what does not seem to fit at first blush becomes perfectly fitting, in Christ.


The Problem

            In the most important sense, there is no problem with the text of Ezekiel 40-48. It is the inerrant, inspired, infallible, authoritative, and perspicuous Word of God. While it is here necessary to summarize the textual data, any discussion of problems “with the text” more properly concerns problems with the interpretation of the text. As Keith Stanglin observes:

Exegesis can go wrong in all sorts of ways . . . we want to see how landing on one side of the spectrum between literal and spiritual can lead to imbalance. In other words, very few interpreters are all letter or all spirit, but the closer they come to either extreme, the more liable they are to err.[2]

It may be even better to say that the problem is with the interpreters themselves. The noetic effects of sin are painfully clear as one approaches Ezekiel’s temple Vision.[3]

Ezekiel begins: “In the visions of God he brought me to the land of Israel” (Ezek. 40:2). In the first three chapters of this vision (40-42), the temple architecture is described exhaustively (it seems). Ezekiel spends ninety verses relating his angelic tour guide’s precise temple measurements in two dimensions. Although much larger, the dimensions of Ezekiel’s temple complex are analogous to Solomon’s temple (cf. 1 Kings 6:1 ff.). Beale points out that several key pieces of temple furniture are missing from this vision when contrasted with Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle in the wilderness. Nine items are not described: the large bronze basin (sea), the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, the altar of incense, the veil separating the holy of holies, the high priest, the anointing oil, the ark of the covenant, and the cherubim.[4]  Suddenly the glory of God returns to the temple in chapter 43: “the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ezek. 43:5). God then instructs Ezekiel to tell the people in exile in Babylon all about this vision, and Ezekiel proceeds to describe the exact dimensions of the altar of burnt offering in the inner court. Ezekiel introduces the idea of sacrifice into a seemingly eschatological context.

The gate of the prince is introduced in chapter 44, “Only the prince may sit in it to eat bread before the Lord. He shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way” (Ezek. 44:3). The reader understands that there will be a prince, and he has somewhat limited access to God’s presence in the heart of the temple. General temple access is restricted: “Thus says the Lord God: No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the people of Israel, shall enter my sanctuary” (Ezek. 44:9). There are Levites and priests, ceremonially clean, to minister in the sanctuary.

Chapter 45 briefly moves beyond the temple complex to the area just outside of the temple walls, the “holy district” (Ezek. 45:1-6). The prince is also given a portion of land (Ezek. 45:7-9). If earlier allusions to sacrifices related to consecration were not clear, the remainder of chapter 45 concerns itself with all kinds of sacrifices, and even the yearly rehearsal of the Passover celebration (Ezek. 45:18). Chapter 46 continues the discussion of important feasts celebrated in the visionary temple, even describing where the Levitical priests are to boil particular offerings (cf. Ezek. 46:20).

There is a river flowing from the center of the sanctuary. Strangely, it has no tributaries, but always increases in depth and is even able to reverse the salinity of the Dead Sea (Ezek. 47:8). Now outside the temple complex in chapters 47-48, Ezekiel relates the divisions of the land of Israel according to the tribes in perfect parallel allotments with the temple complex and the holy city centrally located north-to-south. Finally, the name of the city from that time on shall be, “The Lord Is There” (Ezek. 48:30).[5]

The analogy of faith refers “to the principle that any interpretation must be in accord with the teaching of the Scripture taken as a whole.”[6] The author of Hebrews is very clear:

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:11-14)

The need for sacrifices to take away sin is over after the coming of Christ. John presents Christ as the fulfillment of the temple: “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). Christ breaks down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile––there is no privileged access to God (Eph. 2:11-22). Ezekiel 40-48 does not fit the pattern. If Ezekiel presents a literal eschatological temple, “What does not fit?” is the apparent disregard for the finished work of Christ. “What bothers you?” is an apparent backward step in redemptive history. The very horns of Ezekiel’s altar put the interpreter on the horns of a dilemma!

The Problem Examined

G.K. Beale is correct in affirming, “The main lines of interpretation are, at least, fourfold.”[7] First, some understand Ezekiel 40-48 as describing a literal, physical temple built in geographical Israel. Second, at the other extreme, it may be posited that the temple is purely visionary and figurative, with no corresponding physical reality or structure. Somewhere in the middle is the position that Ezekiel is figuratively describing an ideal temple; it has reality somewhere but only in miniature or deescalated fashion, such as Zerubbabel’s “day of small things” temple (Zech. 4:10). A final moderating position understands a temple that is 1) real, but 2) figuratively described, and 3) corresponding to a non-structural physical reality (see Figure 1 below). Although the present author is certain that great men of God have held to the third view, the popularity of the first, second, and fourth views in the modern-day merit more detailed analysis.

Figure 1


Temple is a Structure Temple in Non-Structural
Temple is Real First, “Dispensational” Fourth, “Covenantal” or “Type-Antitype”
Temple is Figurative

Third, “Miniature Realization”

Second, “Ideal Only”


Charles Ryrie, John MacArthur, and John Walvoord are modern proponents of the first view. Ryrie writes, “Anyone who has a sensible view of reason would, it seems, have to admit that not to take literally and plainly the many specific details in the chapters (careful measurements, places, etc.) contravenes all reason.”[8] The temple and scarifies are future and concrete––they occur in the one thousand years between the return of Christ and the end of the world. Sacrifices have three general purposes in the millennial kingdom: theocratic forgiveness (as in the Mosaic economy), to prefigure or foreshadow deliverance since unbelievers will still be present in the millennial kingdom, and to show obedience in the Christian life.[9] Yet, Christ is present in Jerusalem physically, and Ryrie acknowledges (in part) the message of Hebrews, noting that millennial believers in his view “will certainly realize that the Day of Atonement is no longer necessary.”[10] Responding to objectors, Ryrie concludes, “These are all worthy purposes and in no way backward steps in the progressive revelation of the glory of God.”[11]

The MacArthur Study Bible  note on Ezekiel 40:5 echoes Ryrie’s position:

This could not be the heavenly temple since Ezekiel was taken to Israel to see it (v. 2). It could not be Zerubbabel’s temple since the glory of God was not present then. It could not be the eternal temple since the Lord and the Lamb are its temple (cf. Rev. 21:22). Therefore, it must be the earthly millennial temple built with all of the exquisite details that are yet to be outlined.[12]

By process of elimination, the author of this study note affirms the first view (see Figure 1). When the question of temple sacrifice is raised in the subsequent note on Ezekiel 40:38-47, the reader learns that sacrifices, “will exist as vv. 39–43 indicate, but will be no more efficacious then than they were in OT times. No sacrifice before or after Christ saves. They only point to Him as the one true Lamb who takes away sin.”[13] So, the sacrifices serve to point backward to Jesus as a memorial for MacArthur. In a recorded question-and-answer session at Grace Community Church where he pastors, MacArthur was asked about Ezekiel 44. After affirming the physical construction of a temple in the millennial kingdom, the further transcript of his answer reads, “And I also believe that, according to Ezekiel 40 to 48, in that millennial temple, there will also be a reenactment symbolically of the significance of the worship of the old covenant. So what you have there, in a symbolic form, is the activity of the temple.”[14]

John Walvoord, although more conciliatory in his language, nonetheless believes:

Inasmuch as the specifications are very specific and imply a literal temple and inasmuch as having a temple in the millennium would coincide with a period of joy and peace and worship of the Lord, it would seem best to consider this temple a literal temple, though problems of interpretation remain.[15]

Walvoord recognizes the sacrifices as physical blood-letting along with Ryrie and MacArthur, and is comfortable with the view that “the sacrifices will be memorial, much as the Lord’s Supper is a memorial in the church age for the death of Christ.”[16] Uniquely he goes on to say that the sacrifices will be necessary in the millennial kingdom because ideal circumstances “will tend to cause people to gloss over the awfulness of sin and the need for bloody sacrifice.”[17]

Representing the second view (see Figure 1 above) is Daniel Block. After a careful consideration of ten factors which ought to influence the interpreter’s understanding of Ezekiel 40-48, Block states his position:

Nevertheless, in view of the considerations cited above, it seems best to interpret chs. 40–48 ideationally. The issue for the prophet is not physical geography but spiritual realities. As in his earlier vision, historical events are described from a theological plane, and the interpreter’s focus must remain on the ideational value of that which is envisioned.[18]

Although Block is not happy with a full eschatological understanding of the text, his ideal view leaves very little daylight between this second view, and the fourth view (discussed below). “Ezekiel’s final vision presents a lofty spiritual ideal: Where God is, there is Zion . . . Ezekiel hereby lays the foundation for the Pauline spiritualization of the temple.”[19] Block has no problem explaining sacrifices: this is Ezekiel’s perfect idea of the old Jerusalem temple, now operating at its peak efficiency––of course there is bloody sacrifice! Although this may foreshadow the new creation, a fully eschatological analysis “is weakened considerably by the absence of eschatological language.”[20]

The fourth view is the position of G.K. Beale (see Figure 1). Like Block, Beale is very concerned with understanding intertextual connections within Ezekiel and across sacred Scripture (a tendency not as prominent in the proponents of the first view), but he goes further than Block: “Ezekiel 40–48 foresees an ideal heavenly temple that already has existence and that will descend to earth at the end of history.”[21] In other words, Ezekiel is using figurative language familiar to his audience to paint a picture of present heavenly reality––God dwells there––that will be an earthly reality––God dwells here. Again, in Beale’s words:

Hence, it is not incorrect to say that Ezekiel speaks in the language and images familiar to his audience in portraying sacrifices in a temple to prophesy about the escalated redemptive-historical realities of Christ’s sacrifice and the church’s imitation of that sacrifice.[22]

Against Block, Beale argues that “expression of eschatological ‘concepts’ does not always depend on the use of technical eschatological ‘terms.’”[23] This is something like the word-concept fallacy.[24] And yet, as noted above, there is not much daylight between Block and Beale: “Despite some minor disagreements with Block’s view, we believe that his view of an ideal temple could be combined with an eschatological approach.”[25] The line of demarcation between Block and Beale is essentially the notion in Beale that Revelation 21 is the fulfillment of Ezekiel 40-48. Beale is comfortable with the concept of Ezekiel’s temple vision as inaugurated (not consummated) eschatology. “While Ezekiel’s temple portrays end-time conditions, these conditions are part of an inaugurated, but not a consummated, eschatology.”[26] It seems best to understand Beale’s view of the vision as pertaining to the church age, and pointing beyond.


The Problem Solved

It seems that the proponents of the first view are more bothered by deviation from a “literal, grammatical, and historical” hermeneutic than by deviation from analogia fide:

Anyone who consistently uses a normal, plain, historical-grammatical, or literal hermeneutic will reject those interpretations [second and fourth in our discussion] out of hand. Also, anyone who has a sensible view of reason would, it seems, have to admit that not to take literally and plainly the many specific details in the chapters (careful measurements, places, etc.) contravenes all reason.[27]

One is disappointed to watch scholars and shepherds confuse literal with literalistic interpretation. Interpreting Ezekiel as if it were a historical narrative forces one to say that Christians will slaughter animals in a Jerusalem temple after the Lord Jesus (the Temple, the Priest, the Lamb) returns to reign. It entails the idea of a new Levitical priesthood, thereby disconnecting Ezekiel from redemptive history. That does not fit! May it never be!

On the other hand, as the second and fourth views are considered, the question “What bothers you?” about Ezekiel’s temple vision disappears. While Ryrie, MacArthur, and Walvoord are allergic to perceived “allegorical leaps,” Block and Beale have allowed Ezekiel himself and the authoritative interpretation of the New Testament to shape their analysis. Indeed, “Prophecy is the language of judgment, anguish, longing, and celebration . . . it is filled with poetic pictures and exaggerated expressions.”[28] The second and fourth views account for the prophetic genre of the temple vision. Generally missing in the first view, genre analysis and Bible-wide view of the temple and its development are considered here.

Again, when “careful measurements” in 40-42 do not “seem to fit,” rather than forcing a literalistic view, the concept of prophetic idiom must be applied. As Lee Irons explains, “When the prophets spoke of the Messiah’s reign, they described it in terms and figures of speech drawn from their Israelite context.”[29] Ezekiel (the priest come prophetic author) uses temple imagery to prefigure a non-structural reality in a way that would make sense to an exiled audience longing for temple worship! (cf. Ps. 137:5).

Proper attention to context correctly allows Beale to find parallels between Ezekiel’s temple vision and earlier theophanic visions in chapters 1 and 8-9: the same introductory formulae are used, and on all three occasions the vision of the glory of God is central. This “bind[s] them all together.”[30] Beale argues elsewhere that chapter 37 already discusses “temple” in the sense of God’s presence with His people (not in a building).[31] Ryrie et. al. do not interpret chapters 1 and 8-9 literalistically which seems to be an interpretive contradiction. Further, exegetical features of 40-48 such as the use of mountain imagery and the divine stream of ever-increasing depth point one to a symbolic, eschatological interpretation.

Both Block and Beale move beyond the book of Ezekiel, finding canonical and redemptive-historical connections. Block recalls John 7: “Ezekiel’s vision of the stream also lives on in the NT. One may recognize a veiled allusion in Jesus’ words in John 7:38: ‘As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’”[32] Beale finds the imagery of Revelation 21 to be an escalation of Ezekiel 40-48:

The broad structure of the city from 21:12–22:5 is based on the vision of Ezekiel 40–48. Ezekiel 40–44 prophesies the pattern of the final temple, and Ezekiel 45–48 primarily depicts the future arrangement of the eschatological city and the divisions of the land around the temple compound. Revelation 21:12–22:5 further interprets the yet-future fulfillment of Ezekiel by collapsing the temple, city, and land into one end-time picture portraying the one reality of God’s communion with his people.[33]

If one remains confused by the description of bloody sacrifices in the temple vision, Beale responds that this “may be solved by seeing them beginning fulfillment in Christians who offer themselves to God by suffering for their faith” [34] There is sacrifice of praise, and sacrifice of blood in the Christian church, to which the vision points.

Ezekiel’s temple vision in 40-48 is a figurative description of the heavenly reality of God’s presence in His heavenly temple––it is ideal (second interpretation). This temple has come to earth in non-structural form through the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2). Ezekiel’s vision therefore describes inaugurated eschatology, or the church age where suffering and sacrifice remain. Yet there are fantastic elements that point well beyond the present church age to the new creation in the age to come (fourth interpretation).



Ezekiel 40-48 exposes the deficiency of the so-called literal, grammatical, and historical hermeneutic, much like a difficult case may expose the incomplete training of a medical student. At base, the first view does what no experienced interpreter ought to do: it misses Christ, His finished work, and His church. On the other hand, Beale and Block do not force theological gymnastics related to memorial sacrifices and detailed measurements. “What does not fit the pattern?” When one allows Scripture itself to set the pattern, with attention to near and far context, intertextual connections, and genre analysis, Ezekiel 40-48 is not a “problem text.” The diagnosis is straightforward: this is about the Lord Jesus and his church in this age, and in the age to come. “What does not fit?” It is all perfectly fitting, in Christ.


About the Author

Brandt Athey is a 2024 graduate of the Master of Arts in Theological Studies program (historical/systematic emphasis). In his other life, Brandt is a small animal veterinarian practicing in Lakewood, OH. He is the grateful husband of Stephanie and father of his son, Lawson, and daughter, London. The Athey family worships with God’s people at Olmsted Falls Bible Church near Cleveland, OH.



[1] “Hermeneutics may be defined briefly as the theory of interpretation.” Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 293.

[2] Keith Stanglin, The Letter and Spirit of Biblical Interpretation: From the Early Church to Modern Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2018), loc. 4958, Kindle.

[3] “The ‘noetic effect of sin’ is one aspect of the doctrine of ‘total depravity’ which declares that the fall reaches deep down into a man’s very being.” Gary DeMar, Pushing the Antithesis: The Apologetic Methodology of Greg L. Bahnsen (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2007), 278.

[4] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, ed. D. A. Carson, vol. 17, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL; England: InterVarsity Press; Apollos, 2004), 354.

[5] The ESV Study Bible has very helpful diagrams of the city, temple complex, and land divisions in Ezekiel’s vision. David J. Reimer, “Ezekiel,” in The ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 1578.

[6] Kelly M. Kapic and Wesley Vander Lugt, Pocket Dictionary of the Reformed Tradition, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 13.

[7] Beale, Temple and the Church’s Mission, 335.

[8] Charles C. Ryrie, “Why Sacrifices in the Millennium?,” Emmaus Journal 11, no. 2 (2002): 300.

[9] Ibid., 304.

[10]  Ibid., 307.

[11] Ibid., 309.

[12] John MacArthur Jr., ed., The MacArthur Study Bible, electronic ed. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 1997), 1210.

[13] Ibid., 1211.

[14] John MacArthur, Bible Questions and Answers, Part 32, Grace to You, GradeToYou.org, accessed April 20, 2024, https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/70-4/bible-questions-and-answers-part-32.

[15] John Walvoord, Every Prophecy of the Bible: Clear Explanations for Uncertain Times (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2011), 191.

[16] Ibid., 196.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Daniel Isaac Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 25–48, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 505.

[19] Ibid., 506.

[20] Ibid., 504.

[21] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 335.

[22] Ibid., 343.

[23] Ibid., 346.

[24] “word-concept fallacy. n. The erroneous notion that each word in a language corresponds to a precise concept, one that remains stable in every context. See also dynamic equivalence.” Matthew S. DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 129.

[25] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 346.

[26] Ibid., 349.

[27] Charles C. Ryrie, “Why Sacrifices in the Millennium?,” 300.

[28] Robert L. Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible,  ed. Benjamin L. Merkle, 2nd ed., 40 Questions Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2021), 218.

[29] Charles Lee Irons, “Prophetic Idiom,” The Upper Register (blog), accessed April 21, 2024, https://www.upper-register.com/papers/prophetic-idiom.pdf.

[30] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 338.

[31] Ibid., 110.

[32] Block, The Book of Ezekiel, 698.

[33] Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 350.

[34] Ibid., 343.

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