Republished with permission from Dr. Reluctant. In this series, Dr. Henebury responds to a collection of criticisms of dispensationalism entitled “95 Theses against Dispensationalism” written by a group called “The Nicene Council.” Read the series so far.
Contrary to dispensationalism’s teaching that a physical temple will be rebuilt, the New Testament speaks of the building of the temple as the building of the Church in Christ, so that “the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:21); the only temple seen in the book of Revelation is in Heaven, which is the real and eternal temple of which the earthly temporary temple was, according to the book of Hebrews, only a “shadow” or “copy” (Heb 8:5; 9:24).
Response: Note that this objection is a deduction from these passages, not a plain declaration of the texts themselves. Do these passages deny “that a physical temple will be rebuilt”? No they do not. But let’s take a look at some that do teach that a literal temple will be rebuilt in the future (italics added):
Matthew 24:15: Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place.
The geographical context is “Judea” (the next verse), and the eschatological context is “the end” (Matt.24:3, 6, 14, 21, 27, 29-30). The Nicene Council notwithstanding, these verses are not referring to AD 70! They are speaking about a time of “tribulation” (Matt.24:21, 29) occurring right before the Second Coming of Christ (Matt.24:29-31). The “holy place” of verse 15, then, is standing in Judea just prior to Christ’s return!
2 Thessalonians 2:3-4: Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.
I realize the writers of the 95 Theses have their own antidote to this passage by, for example, changing Paul’s temple into the Church (Riddlebarger). But this temple, it is admitted by most interpreters, is a future temple. The question is, does Paul mean a literal temple (dispensationalism) or a spiritual one (e.g. amillennialism, etc.)? Certainly the church is called a “holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:21), and a “spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5). But in these contexts one is told that a spiritual temple is in view. Not so in the eschatological passage in 2 Thessalonians 2. There a particular personage (the man of sin) sits in a temple as God. It is very hard to “sit” in a spiritual temple! Moreover, the Church as a spiritual temple is comprised only of born-again believers. It is built up by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:18-22!), and is never said to include unbelievers. No unbeliever could “sit” in the spiritual temple however hard he tried! And what child of God would “exhalt himself above all that is worshiped” and pretend to be God?
Thus those who turn the temple in 2 Thessalonians 2 into the church have ignored the context and have based their interpretation on a deduction (Paul must be referring to a spiritual temple—the church—in 2 Thess. 2:4), supplemented by another deduction (the church as a spiritual temple can include someone who is an unbeliever). With all due respect this looks more like a parody of Paul’s teaching rather then a serious interpretation of it.
Revelation 11:1: Then I was given a reed like a measuring rod. And the angel stood, saying, ‘Rise and measure the temple of God, the altar, and those who worship there. But leave out the court which is outside the temple, and do not measure it, for it has been given to the Gentiles. And they will tread the holy city underfoot for forty-two months.
Our non-dispensational friends also spiritualize this temple, of course. They do this despite the fact that: (1) it is measured; (2) it contains an altar; (3) people worship in it; (4) it has an outer court; (5) it is overrun for a specified time by Gentiles, thus pointing to its Jewishness; (6) it is in “the holy city,” which, to hazard a guess, is Jerusalem (Rev. 11:8!). (I am having trouble imagining the heavenly temple being trodden underfoot by a bunch of Gentiles).
“But this is all typological and symbolical,” we are told. But the temples of Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2 are not symbolical. And we have demonstrated that they are end-time structures. It is beyond strange that they should accord so well with the temple in Revelation 11. And when we allow ourselves to read John’s Apocalypse as a prophetic “revelation,” and not a typological obfuscation, all the symbols make perfect sense within a literal framework (which would not be expected if we were not meant to interpret the book literally).
Again, there is no need to spiritualize these passages, so why do it?
These three texts alone overthrow Theses 80, and we have not even factored in the Millennial Temple!
Despite the dispensationalists’ attempt to re-interpret Ezekiel’s prophecies of a future sacrificial system by declaring that they are only “memorial” in character, and are therefore like the Lord’s Supper, the prophecies of that temple which they see as being physically “rebuilt” speak of sacrifices that effect “atonement” (Ezek. 43:20; 45:15, 17, 20); whereas the Lord’s Supper is a non-bloody memorial that recognizes Christ as the final blood-letting sacrifice.
Response: Finally, we get a decent objection! They are spot on here (well nearly). Many dispensationalists have and do say the atoning sacrifices in Ezekiel are a “memorial” like the Lord’s Supper, and they are just plain wrong! Any fair exegesis of the “kaphar passages” in this portion of Ezekiel must take seriously the intensive form of the verb “to make atonement.” John Whitcomb and Jerry Hullinger seek to do this in their treatments of these chapters. Thomas Ice believes the sacrifices here (he refers to the very passages cited in the Thesis above) are for ritual purification and “do not specifically depict or represent Christ’s atoning sacrifice.” (“Literal Sacrifices in the Millennium”). He may be right. For myself, I have written elsewhere (if I may be permitted to quote myself):
The Bible predicts that a literal Temple and sacrificial system will be in existence during the Millennial Kingdom (Ezek. 40-48; Jer. 33; Isa. 2:2-4; 60:13; Hag. 2:9; Zech. 14:16-21). What the full purposes of the Temple will be cannot be stated with exactitude, but there is no contradiction in Christ offering a once-for-all sacrifice for sins and the reinstitution of Millennial Sacrifices. Just as the O.T. sacrifices did not expiate sin, but pointed away from themselves to the Great Sacrifice of Christ, so the Millennial sacrifices will not expiate sin, but may function as the way for sinners in the Millennium (cf. Isa. 65:20) to express acceptance and faith in the finished work of Christ. In other words, they may act as the way of access to the blood of Christ.
(The High Priest in the Millennial Kingdom will be Jesus Himself as the Melchisedekian High Priest. His function as “the Mediator of the New Covenant” (Heb. 12:24) will surely not end at the fulfillment of the New Covenant at the beginning of the Kingdom age).
Perhaps the sacrifices (or some of them) will represent the content of faith required by God from those who believe in Christ for salvation in the Millennial dispensation? One must recall that every person in the kingdom will know that Christ has died for the sins of the world. It will take no more faith to believe that fact than to believe the earth is round. Perhaps, then, the sacrifices reveal true faith? We cannot tell for sure.
I stand by those remarks. Theology has “frayed edges.” Think of the Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the origin of sin, man’s freedom and God’s predestination, etc. There is nothing contradictory in good formulations of these doctrines, but none of us has all the answers either. Just so with the Millennial sacrifices. The best studies, which the Nicene Council ought to have been aware of, are sound formulations with “frayed edges.” There is no reason to spiritualize Ezekiel 36-48 because of any clash with the Book of Hebrews. Any contradiction is only apparent because of poor theology, whether done by some dispensationalists or some covenant theologians.