Sunday, July 9, 2017

New Temple: Homily on Ezekiel 40-46

The prophet was nearing his fiftieth birthday now. He could scarcely believe that he'd spent half his life in the lands of Babylon. He was older now than his hero Jeremiah had been when the letter came – we talked about that letter last Sunday. But Ezekiel thought now about the life he used to live, half a lifetime ago. How he'd dwelled in the land God had promised his ancestors – this day was, in fact, the anniversary of their crossing of the River Jordan. Ezekiel remembered his youthful adoration for the temple – his love of watching his father serve as a priest, his grandfather and uncles as priests, his yearning to serve as a priest himself. He recalled the day the Babylonians came and tore him screaming from Jerusalem – recalled the day he lost sight of the temple. He remembered the day the LORD came to him by the irrigation canal. He remembered the day he was given a vision of the temple one more time – and was horrified at the disgusting idolatry that filled its hallowed halls. And he remembered the day his neighbors heard the news of destruction. But it was just no temple any more.

Ezekiel thought long and hard about it. And on this dry spring day when he thought his thoughts, he slipped away from the preparations for the Passover feast, scheduled to happen in a few days. Ezekiel slipped away, he found a secluded space out by the canal again, and he poured out his heart to his God. And then he felt it – an old familiar feeling, the sensation of being totally in the LORD's grasp. A dizziness descended, and adrenaline pounded through his veins, and before he knew it, he was... home (Ezekiel 40:1) – home in a grand divine vision. Home, not amidst smoldering ruins, not in a valley of dry bones, but home on a mountain that wasn't even there – a “very high mountain” he'd never seen before (Ezekiel 40:2). And thus begins the vision – one of the most perplexing passages in the whole Old Testament, and that's saying a lot!

See, for all the rest of the book, Ezekiel stands with a mysterious “man whose appearance was like bronze, with a linen cord and a measuring reed in his hand” (Ezekiel 40:3) – in other words, a heavenly surveyor armed with measuring tape and a supersized yardstick. And the man takes him on a very detailed surveying tour of an unnamed city but especially the heart of the city, which is an exquisite temple complex, perfected in every way, bigger and better than Solomon's Temple, surrounded by a wall ten feet high and ten feet thick. Ezekiel goes on a tour inspecting this perfect temple, where God comes to dwell permanently; he receives detailed instructions, almost a new mini-Leviticus, to govern it; and the list of measurements, chambers, and all sorts of features is, to be totally honest, just exhausting. Go ahead, read it!

And this really is a challenging passage to work with. Because, what exactly is this new temple? Is it the one the Jews will build when they return from their exile in Babylon? Well, Ezra and Nehemiah tell us all about that – and it doesn't measure up. Not even close. The half-hearted thing they build doesn't measure up at all – not even to Solomon's original, much less to this vision. Centuries later, Herod the Great expands the temple, tries to use this as a template – but still the Second Temple never comes close.

And so a lot of people these days have made the guess that Ezekiel is seeing a literal Third Temple that will be built near the end by the people of Israel on the Temple Mount. That's popular among dispensationalist readers of the Bible today – this idea that it's a physical Jewish temple to be built within modern-day Jerusalem. But that doesn't actually add up either. The whole thing is just too big – not just the temple, but the description of districts around it. The Temple Mount is hardly the “very high mountain” Ezekiel sees – notice he avoids using the word 'Jerusalem' for this city he's seeing. The measurements of the temple in his vision aren't meant as a blueprint – there's no command to build, and most of the vertical measurements are just ignored, not to mention there's no mention of the materials it's built out of. The activities of the temple include the Levitical priesthood and atoning sacrifices, both of which were abolished by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, according to the writer to the Hebrews. And Ezekiel narrates this vision right after the defeat of Gog, and when you compare that to Revelation, it doesn't leave much room for this temple to fit within history as we know it.

All that suggests we should remember that the visions of the prophets were seldom straightforward – they don't peer through a window and see things other people will ever capture exactly on film. The visions of prophets are chock-full of symbols – and so is this mystery temple. It's meant to communicate a powerful message to Ezekiel, the dejected priest who never got to serve in the corrupted temple in Jerusalem that's now rubble; and it's meant to send that same message to the exiled Judeans who corrupted the First Temple. This is a vision of a temple that's kept pure – that's why there's so much emphasis on the priests stationed in each gate on guard duty. This vision is an elaborate way of picturing an alternate reality, a perfect temple where purity is actually taken seriously, where worship runs smoothly. This is the beautiful truth of which the real temple was only a shadow.

And in this vision, Ezekiel beholds the glory of the LORD taking up permanent residence among the people – this is the sort of temple in which he could do that: “As the glory of the LORD entered the temple by the gate facing east, the Spirit lifted me up and brought me into the inner court; and behold, the glory of the LORD filled the temple. While the man was standing beside me, I heard one speaking to me out of the temple, and he said to me, 'Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will dwell in the midst of Israel forever, and the house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name...'” (Ezekiel 43:4-7). And he's told this message is to be told to the other exiles, “that they may be shamed of their iniquities” (Ezekiel 43:10).

Ezekiel gets this vision on the tenth day of the first month in the Hebrew calendar – assuming he's using the same calendar, that's a few days before Passover. It's also the same day of the year that will eventually become Palm Sunday – the day Jesus enters Jerusalem as people hail him as king. According to the first three Gospels, it's the same day when Jesus goes to the Second Temple and announces God's judgment on it – the same day when he says that his own body is the real temple of God, which he'll tear down and raise up in three days (Matthew 21:12-14; 26:61). That's the day of Ezekiel's vision. And because the apostles recognize the church as Jesus' body on earth after the Ascension, they see the church itself as the earthly temple: “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Corinthians 6:16), that's what's written. There can be only one, and we're it. And then, when we read the end of the story, what comes after the final defeat of Gog and Magog? John repeats Ezekiel's promise that God would dwell among his people (Revelation 21:3), and then he sees the symbolic city with its gates and its walls, even bigger and grander than Ezekiel saw it, and yet “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22), from whom flows the river that Ezekiel sees flowing from the temple in his vision – more on that part next Sunday. But this is what Ezekiel's glimpsing in a way that makes sense to him and his people. Which is why things are explained to him in terms from the old covenant, like continued atoning sacrifices and his type of priesthood, which are symbols pointing ahead to what Christ will bring.

See, in a way, we are this new temple Ezekiel sees – though we're still under construction. And we are the priests who serve there. And the main point is this: All the pollution Ezekiel once saw in the temple will be done away with. This temple – the temple that we are – is bigger and more glorious than the one Solomon built, and we are made to dwell in God's holy city. More important than that, we are made to be the place where God sets up his throne. We are made to be filled with the glory of the LORD. And he has given us a promise, a promise that must have been sweet music to the exiles' ears: that he will “dwell in the midst of the house of Israel forever” (Ezekiel 43:7). His dwelling is here, in his church, and he will never leave us. One day, we'll see him face to face, and celebrate the feasts with him, the heavenly wedding banquet.

Until then, his altar is still in his temple. Ezekiel's vision includes the altar. It also includes sacrifices, which the priesthood serving in this new temple will eat. Ezekiel beholds “the holy chambers, where the priests who approach the LORD shall eat the most holy offerings” (Ezekiel 42:13). He's told outright that “they shall eat the grain offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering, and every devoted thing in Israel shall be theirs” (Ezekiel 44:19). In fact, the last thing Ezekiel sees in chapter 46, before what we'll talk about next week, is a tour of the kitchens where the sacred meals are prepared (Ezekiel 46:19-24). This morning, we approach the LORD at the altar of his new temple. And an offering is laid out unto God – the offering of the loaf and the cup, which Christ called his body and blood. But with thanksgiving to God, we will eat this offering, as the priests of the new temple. When we gather at this altar, when we eat these most holy offerings, be aware of this truth: that the glory of the LORD has committed to dwell in our midst forever, and bids us safeguard the purity of his beautiful temple – not a building, but a fellowship, where we worship our Father in spirit and in truth (cf. John 4:24). Thanks be to God. Amen.

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