Posted by: Fred Butler | March 30, 2013

Ezekiel’s Temple Sacrifices and Hebrews

atonementI had argued in my previous article that our understanding of the “animal sacrifices” in Ezekiel 40-48 hinges on a precise definition of what is meant by atonement and sin offerings.

The word atonement, depending upon the context, can have the meaning of wiping away or purging. Additionally, the atonement is made on behalf of a person or an indirect object and may really have nothing to do with moral sin or placating God’s wrath against sinners.

In the case of Ezekiel, the animal sacrifices “make atonement” first for the altar in the temple, and then for the people of Israel who will serve in that temple. In the context, the atonement effects external impurity, wiping away defilement and consecrating both the altar and the people to serve in the presence of the LORD who will take up residence in the temple.

The sin offerings have a similar idea. First, they are not offerings made for moral sin. In fact, “sin offerings” is an inaccurate translation. The better understanding of the phrase is one of purification. So rather, this is a purification offering. And secondly, these purification offerings work in a similar way the atonement did in that they purify objects and people for service before a Holy God.

How then do these sacrifices fit with the idea of Ezekiel’s millennial temple?

As a premillennialist, I understand that the Bible teaches that the millennium is an intermediary period of time between this current age and the eternal age to come (Isaiah 24, 25, 65, Zechariah 14) during which Jesus Christ reigns on earth for 1,000 years in a restored nation of Israel. To get a more formal overview, I refer you to this previous post HERE.

When I search Scripture and harmonize the various prophetic passages in the OT that speak to the conditions that will be present in that millennium, I notice a number of things.

1) Though Satan is bound and his influence restrained on the earth, the effects of the fall is still presence to a degree. Specifically, men will still die naturally.
2) Non-resurrected humanity will dwell with resurrected humanity.
3) The nations will be required to come to Jerusalem to worship God, presumably at the temple complex prophesied by Ezekiel (Zechariah 14:16-21).
4) Ezekiel’s temple will be built and God’s presence will take up residence there.
5) The people of Israel will have a role in leading the worship on behalf of those gentile nations that come to the land of Israel and the temple.

With those items in mind, the animal sacrifices and purification offerings, rather than atoning for man’s law-breaking and moral sin, serve as a means to purify the altar, the priests who serve in the temple, and the people of Israel who also live in the land and regularly participate in the worship of the LORD with those nations that come per Zech. 14:16ff.

What is in view is external ritual purification, not internal, spiritual purification.  During the millennium, God will dwell among His people who still live on a fallen world, albeit, the impact of the fall is greatly restrained. His restored people of Israel, who will be tasked to serve in this temple, also live in that fallen world, as well as among an earthly population of fallen humanity.  The purpose of the animal sacrifices, then, will be to cleanse the temple from any impurity that could be brought in, as well as keep the people who serve in the temple from defiling it.

That is how the animal sacrifices in Ezekiel differ from the sacrifice of Christ as taught in Hebrews. In chapters 9 and 10, the author of Hebrews does an exposition on the work Christ did on the cross on behalf of his people. The author zeroes in upon the sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement as explained in Leviticus 16, and contrasts it with Christ’s atonement on the cross.

The Day of Atonement was the most critical holy day for Israel. It was that one day of the year on which the high priest came into the Holy of Holies within the tabernacle and made atonement for the entire nation of Israel. The blood of a slain goat was sprinkled by the high priest on the Ark of the Covenant and then he laid his hands upon the scapegoat that was released into the wilderness, symbolically picturing the taking away of Israel’s sins.

So with that ritual, we have presented for us the dual role of atonement where a substitute dies on behalf of the people’s sin and their sin is taken away.  The Day of Atonement cleansed the people of Israel from their moral impurity and God could continue to dwell with them until the next year when the process would be repeated.

The author of Hebrews contrasts the sacrifice made on the Day of Atonement with that of Christ on the cross. There are some significant distinctions:

1) The sacrifice on the Day of Atonement was made with an animal on behalf of people, whereas Christ, the perfect man, died on behalf of men. Only a man can be a fitting substitute for men who are created in the image of God.

2) The animal sacrifices could only provide atonement for the externals in the ceremony (Heb. 9:13,14), whereas Christ, because of who He was, could cleanse the internal, spiritual heart of men. Only Christ’s work can cleanse the conscience.

3) The high priest had to offer a sacrifice for himself before he went into the sanctuary to offer the atonement for the nation (Heb. 9:25, 26), whereas Christ could go into the sanctuary by His own blood. He was sinless, and thus needed no atonement made for Him.

4) The Day of Atonement was repeated every year, whereas what Christ did was once and for all (Heb. 10:2-4). His work put an end to animal sacrifices for the sake of man’s sin and guilty conscience.

5) By His death Jesus ratified the New Covenant that extends to all people of the earth that they too can have their sins forgiven and their hearts made new. Additionally, because of the work of Christ, the New Covenant has the force to write God’s laws upon the hearts of the people in that covenant (Heb. 10:16-18).

There are a number of differences between Christ’s fulfillment of the Day of the Atonement as explained by the author of Hebrews and the worship ceremonies found in Ezekiel 40-48, but the most obvious is that there isn’t any Day of Atonement mentioned by Ezekiel.  I believe the main reason is due to the fact Christ fulfilled and completed that ceremony once and for all and there is no longer a need for it.

Thus, the animal sacrifices spoken about in Ezekiel are of an entirely different nature than what Christ did on the cross.  Utilizing specified animals within the worship ceremonies of a restored Israel during the millennial kingdom is not a retrogression back to the Mosaic covenant. They are simply appointed for the purpose of cleansing from external defilement and nothing more as the people of Israel fulfill their role of leading the world in worship of God.

Now. With my next post, I’ll outline the standard objections and arguments against my position and provide a response. I’ll also open comments to readers so I can hear from them.

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