One of the most difficult passages to harmonize with dispensational literalism is Ezekiel 40-48 . In these chapters Ezekiel recorded a vision of a new temple in which sacrificial ritual occurred. This immediately places the dispensationalist in a dilemma. If the temple is viewed as in the eschaton and the sacrifices are literal, then this seems to be at odds with the Book of Hebrews, which clearly states that Christ’s sacrifice has put an end to all sacrifice. If, on the other hand, the sacrifices are not accepted as literal, this seems to oppose one of the cornerstones of dispensationalism, namely, the normal interpretation of prophetic literature.2Several elements contribute to an understanding of the purpose of sacrifices during the Millennial Kingdom:
These sacrifices will be types and symbols of their faith in Christ’s death, but that does not make them any the less real. There will probably be mingled sorrow and joy in the sacrifices, as they recall how their fathers refused to accept Christ as the Messiah and how now they have the privilege of seeing it all so clearly.4
Most dispensationalists have explained the sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48 through what is known as “the memorial view.” According to this view the sacrifices offered during the earthly reign of Christ will be visible reminders of His work on the cross. Thus these sacrifices will not contradict the clear teaching of Hebrews, for they will not have any efficacy except to memorialize Christ’s death. The primary support for this view is the parallel of the Lord’s Supper. It is argued that just as the communion table looks back on the Cross without besmirching its glory, so millennial sacrifices will do the same.5The memorial view helps explain one of the purposes of millennial sacrifices which they share with OT sacrifices. Yet in itself, this explanation is lacking because the Scriptures indicate that millennial sacrifices are more than just memorial, they provide atonement (Eze. 16:63; 43:20, 26; 45:15, 17, 20). As we saw above, God’s presence will be on earth in a new way which differs from the Shekinah of the OT, the incarnation of the life of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit indwelling the Church as the spiritual Temple during the present age:
Atonement cleansing was necessary in Leviticus because of the descent of the Shekinah in Exodus 40. A holy God had taken up residence in the midst of a sinful and unclean people. Similarly Ezekiel foresaw the return of God’s glory to the millennial temple. This will again create a tension between a holy God and an unclean people.6
Animal sacrifices during the millennium will serve primarily to remove ceremonial uncleanness and prevent defilement from polluting the temple envisioned by Ezekiel. This will be necessary because the glorious presence of Yahweh will once again be dwelling on earth in the midst of a sinful and unclean people.7When we carefully read the following passage from the book of Hebrews, we notice that the author differentiates between purification of the flesh and cleansing of the conscience:
Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail. Now when these things had been thus prepared, the priests always went into the first part of the tabernacle, performing the services. But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins committed in ignorance; the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing. It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience— concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation. But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:1-14) [emphasis added]The writer of Hebrews understands that although animal sacrifices were ineffectual as a means of salvation, they were effectual for the purifying of the flesh. Animal sacrifices in the OT were not purely forward-looking memorials, but also had effectual function in their time. Their function was not that of providing redemption, but of providing ceremonial cleansing.
Hebrews 9:10 and 13 state that the Levitical offerings were related to “food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body,” and the sprinkling of blood so as to sanctify and purify the flesh. Animal sacrifices were efficacious in removing ceremonial uncleanness. While Christ is superior, the fact should not be lost that animal sacrifices did in the earthly sphere cleanse the flesh and remove outward defilement. . . . Hebrews reveals that Christ’s death met certain objectives and operated in a sphere different from that of the animal sacrifices of the old economy. Hebrews states that animal sacrifices were efficacious in the sphere of ceremonial cleansing. They were not efficacious, however, in the realm of conscience and therefore in the matter of spiritual salvation. Because of this, Christ’s offering is superior in that it accomplished something the Levitical offerings never could, namely, soteriological benefits.8With an appreciation of the effectual aspect of OT sacrifice—that OT sacrifice was more than merely a memorial to the coming work of Christ—we can begin to see why sacrifices are indicated during the Millennial Kingdom. Another way of looking at the relation of animal sacrifice to Christ’s redemptive work is to ask what the effect is of adding to Christ’s redemptive work? We know that to add anything to Christ’s redemptive work is blasphemy for it is akin to representing that His work was incomplete. This in itself indicates sacrifice which was required by the OT could not be merely a miniature form of what Christ did. For then, their efficacious value could be said to contribute to the work of Christ. Alas, this is blasphemy! This dilemma is solved by recognizing that the animal sacrifices in the OT had efficacious value which pointed to, but differed in function from the ultimate redemptive work of Christ. Once we recognize this distinction, we understand that in the same way OT sacrifices do not add to the work of Christ, neither will millennial sacrifices take away from it.Perhaps an analogy would be of further help: that of the contribution of confession in the life of the believer. When a believer is born again, he is unable to become unborn for he is among those chosen by God. As a member among the redeemed, the one-time sacrifice of Jesus paid for all his sin, both past and future. When he commits sin, it does not result in the loss of salvation, otherwise every believer would lose his salvation daily and require regeneration a multitude of times. Moreover, there would be no possibility of knowing whether he has eternal life.9 Yet sin clearly separates the believer from God. Although his salvation is secure, his fellowship is adversely affected because He becomes more distant from God. The solution is found in repentance and confession (1Jn. 1:9). We find that the confession of the believer is efficacious for cleansing, but unrelated to his essential salvation. This is analogous to the function of animal sacrifices both in the OT and the coming Millennial Kingdom. They are not salvific, but associated with cleansing and the approach of God by those who still suffer the ravages of sin.10 For additional information on the Millennial Temple, see [J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 512-531] and [John F. Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), 305-315].
1 “It must not be forgotten that Ezekiel is not alone in this affirmation of a revival of a temple ritual in the coming Kingdom. As Reeve says, ‘The great prophets all speak of a sacrificial system in full vogue in the Messianic Age.’ [J. J. Reeve, ‘Sacrifice,’ I.S.B.E., op cit., Vol. IV, p. 2651.].”—Alva J. McClain, The Greatness Of The Kingdom (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1959), 251.
2 Jerry M. Hullinger, “The Problem of Animal sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48,” in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 152 no. 607 (Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary, July-Sep 1995), 279.
3 McClain, The Greatness Of The Kingdom, 250.
4 John L. Mitchell, “The Problem of Millennial Sacrifices, Part 2,” in Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 110 no. 440 (Dallas, TX: Dallas Theological Seminary, Oct-Dec 1953), 360.
5 Hullinger, The Problem of Animal sacrifices in Ezekiel 40-48, 280.
6 Ibid., 285.
7 Ibid., 281.
8 Ibid., 288.
9 Indeed, this is precisely the situation of the Roman Catholic who may have a mortal sin laid to his account which has the potential to send him to hell in the next moment if he should die before confession and absolution.
10 The population who entered the kingdom in their natural unresurrected bodies and who will eventually die.