It’s a Matter of Interpretation (Part 3)

This is the third and final part in this series. In the first part I introduced the concept of biblical hermeneutics, which are principles for interpreting the bible. We need sound principles of interpretation because, even though we have the right to read and interpret the bible ourselves, we have an obligation to correctly interpret the bible. The second part introduced some interpretive principles focusing on the importance of “Scripture interprets Scripture,” and it included an example from the New Testament. In this concluding article I show how vital is the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture” when interpreting the Old Testament.

Consider the temple prophesied by Ezekiel in chapters 40 through 48. Many (primarily dispensationalists) believe this prophecy must be fulfilled literally in that an actual temple building must be built in the present city of Jerusalem for use in a future millennium. While this may be a literal interpretation, it violates the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture,” especially the corollary that requires the Old Testament to be interpreted by the New Testament. Ezekiel’s temple describes the salvation that is found in Christ since he is the fulfillment of all the aspects of the temple. Space does not allow me to defend this claim. My purpose is simply to show Ezekiel is not describing a literal temple that will be built in the future. (See The NIV Application Commentary, Ezekiel, by Iain M. Duguid for a defense of Ezekiel’s temple being fulfilled in Christ.)

There are many reasons why the temple cannot be literal. I will offer a few of these reasons. First, the temple is on a very high mountain (Ezekiel 40:2), and the temple mount in Jerusalem does not qualify (see also Isaiah 2:2-3). Second, God says he will dwell here in the midst of his people forever, not 1000 years (Ezekiel 43:7). (Also, on a side note, there is nothing in Ezekiel 40-48 to link these chapters to Revelation 20 and nothing Revelation 20 to link that passage to Ezekiel 40-48.) Third, no instructions are given concerning the height or the construction materials, and finally, nowhere in these chapters is it commanded that this temple be built. Concerning these last two points Iain Duguid says,

The absence of specified building materials is a particular problem for literal interpretation, since these are precisely described in other situations where God instructs his servants to construct such edifices as the tabernacle and Solomon’s temple. Of course, it should also be noted that Ezekiel is not instructed to build anything, he merely has to observe and recount to his follow exiles what he has seen. The building he sees is already in existence.[1]

These are important observations but the most important reason why this temple is not a literal building is because, if it is literal, it contradicts the New Testament. If we take the building as literal we must also take the temple activity as literal. There are many passages in the description of the temple that specify animal sacrifices. For example, consider this passage from Ezekiel chapter 45.

And one sheep from every flock of two hundred, from the watering places of Israel for grain offering, burnt offering, and peace offerings, to make atonement for them, declares the Lord GOD. All the people of the land shall be obliged to give this offering to the prince in Israel. It shall be the prince’s duty to furnish the burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings, at the feasts, the new moons, and the Sabbaths, all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel: he shall provide the sin offerings, grain offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, to make atonement on behalf of the house of Israel. (Ezekiel 45:15-17 ESV)

Twice this passage literally says the offerings are “to make atonement.” This cannot be taken literally since, as Hebrews 10:18 says, “there is no longer any offering for sin,” and Hebrews 8:13 proclaims the old covenant is obsolete. Five times (7:27, 9:12, 9:26, 10:1, and 10:10) Hebrews says Jesus’s sacrifice was “once for all.” Paul says the same thing in Romans.

For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. (Romans 6:10 ESV)

Nothing can be added to the sacrifice of Christ. Dispensationalists and others who hold to a literal temple realize they must abandon literal interpretation at this point so they claim these animal sacrifices “look back” to the sacrifice of Jesus. However, making the sacrifices memorial is not taking Ezekiel literally. I like how Keith Mathison puts it.

It is impossible to interpret Ezekiel 40-48 in a strictly literal manner in reference to a future millennium without denying the clear teaching of Hebrews on the final sacrifice of Christ. To do so introduces a contradiction into Scripture that is easily avoided by seeing Ezekiel’s descriptions as figurative. If the Old Testament prophets could prophesy about Christ figuratively in terms of the Levitical sacrifices, why could Ezekiel not have “prophesied the church age [figuratively] in terms of the Old Testament religious system with which ancient Israel was familiar?”[2] Jesus did not come as a literal lamb with four legs and wool, and neither will a future millennium come with literal bloody sacrifices. Dispensationalists cannot be consistently literal in their interpretation of this passage. That would demand the restoration of bloody, atoning (not memorial) animal sacrifices, which is impossible now that Christ has offered himself as the final sacrifice.[3]

This example and the example in Part 2 show the danger of placing literal interpretation above the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Emphasis is placed on literal interpretation for fear of “spiritualizing” Scripture. That fear traces back to the theological liberalism of the 19th and early 20th centuries and is still a legitimate fear today. However, we cannot equate the spiritualizing of the bible with a proper figurative interpretation demanded by the principle of “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Trying to interpret the bible “literally” can be just as much a wax nose as “spiritualizing” the bible. No serious bible student wants to mishandle Scripture. Rather we all want to “rightly handle the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

These articles are not a comprehensive discussion of the subject, and I certainly do not claim interpretive infallibility. I hope, though, this will encourage a desire to combine the right of private interpretation with the responsibility of accurate interpretation. Let’s be more concerned with actual interpretation than literal interpretation.

(For an introduction on how to read Scripture I recommend R. C. Sproul’s book Knowing Scripture. He also has a video series with the same name.)

[1] Iain M. Duguid, The NIV Application Commentary, Ezekiel (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 479

[2] Curtis I. Crenshaw and Grover E. Gunn III, Dispensationalism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, rev. ed. (Memphis, TN: Footstool Publications, 1989), 222.

[3] Keith A. Mathison, Dispensationalism : Rightly Dividing the People of God? (Phillipsburg, NJ : Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1995), 8.

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