This chapter is unlike the others in this book, in a number of ways. For one thing, other chapters look mainly to the past, dealing with events that took place many years ago, and are not occurring now, whereas this chapter is about the future, and events that have not yet come about. In addition, other chapters have been concerned with typical teaching, and in particular how the sacrifices point to the Person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ; whereas in this chapter we will not be looking at sacrifices from that standpoint. Furthermore, while not everyone will concur with every detail of every point made in other chapters regarding the offerings, most readers of this book will agree that the offerings did take place, and that they do speak of Christ. However, this chapter is about a subject that arouses a lot of debate, and it is with that debate that our discussion will be concerned. The issue to be addressed is simply this: in the future, will there be material sacrifices, in an actual temple in the city of Jerusalem; or are the passages in Ezekiel that speak of such sacrifices only to be taken in a spiritual sense?
The disagreement centres round a wider subject, which concerns whether or not there will be a thousand-year reign of Christ here on earth. Among professing Christians today, there are two main views, which briefly may be summarised thus:
The many prophecies in Scripture concerning a future time of blessings here on earth will be fulfilled literally, in a period of one thousand years, known as the “Millennium”. Christ will return in power and glory before that time, and will set up His kingdom on earth, during which many Scripture prophecies will find their fulfilment.
The prophecies will not have a literal fulfilment in a future kingdom here on earth; rather, they are being fulfilled spiritually, during the present age.
Which view one takes will, in general, determine one’s position regarding the offerings in Ezekiel: if one is of the amillennial view, then, of course, he believes there will be no temple, and no sacrifices; if, on the other hand, one believes in an actual kingdom on earth, with Israel at the head of the nations, and Jerusalem as the focus of the worship of Christ, to believe in offerings taking place in the temple is consistent with that standpoint.
Thus, to give this question full treatment, it would be necessary to undertake an in-depth consideration of the many issues involved in the premillennial/amillennial debate. This, however, will not be undertaken here, for several reasons: it would take much more than one chapter of one book; ‘Assembly Testimony’ has already produced longer publications that deal with the issues in more detail1 (and, of course, many other writers and publishers have produced material on the same subject) and it would take us away beyond the remit of this chapter. However, the issue of temple offerings in the Millennium, which will be considered in this chapter, is one of the major aspects of the premillennial/amillennial dispute, and is one of the strongest arguments that Amillennialists use in arguing against a literal Millennium.
1 Bunting, W. “Amillennialism” and McAllister, D. “Amillennialism Examined”
If one reads through Ezekiel chapters 40–46, there is much detail concerning the temple, the furniture, the ordinances, the priests, the offerings, holy days, and many other aspects of the worship and service of God in a coming day. Some very straightforward comments can be made on this:
Scripture States That These Offerings Will Take Place
The writer of this chapter believes that the offerings will be carried out, as described in Ezekiel, in a real rebuilt temple, during the Lord’s millennial reign here on earth. The reason for this belief is simple: Scripture says so. This is the reason for believing anything: if it is recorded in God’s Word then we ought to believe it, and that ought to settle the matter for believers.
There Must Be Good Reasons why We Are Given all These Details
The sheer volume of material, and the detail into which Ezekiel goes, is striking, and raises the question: why would the Holy Spirit go into this level of detail if He knew that it was never going to happen, that none of it was to be taken literally, but was just conveying spiritual truth? Why take so many pages of Scripture to itemise it all, if the structure described was never going to be built, and all the associated rituals were never going to take place?
The Record Reads Like a Description of Real Items and Practices
The language gives no indication that what is written is to be taken other than saying what it means, and meaning what it says. There are Scriptures in which figurative language is used, but when this is done it is clear that it is symbolic, and often the symbols are explained. This passage is not of that nature. Ezekiel is recounting what was shown to him, without any attempt to spiritualise it.
Ezekiel Did not Doubt the Actuality of What he Was Describing
It is clear that Ezekiel believed what he was writing. There is no suggestion that he understood his words to be taken other than literally. Let us consider just one point to illustrate this: in 10.18,19 and 11.22,23 he has spoken of the glory of the Lord departing from “the house” and “the city”, to the east; in 43.1-4 he again speaks of “the city”, and of the glory returning to “the house”, from “the east”. Ezekiel would have had no reason to believe that “the city”, “the house” and “the east” meant anything different in chapter 43 from what they did in the former chapters, where they most certainly do refer to the city of Jerusalem. Indeed, in 43.3, he even highlights the fact that this vision was according to the vision he had had concerning the destruction of the city. The destruction was only too real; by the same token, the description of the restoration must also be taken literally.
Other Writers Also Tell of Future Offerings
Ezekiel is not the only prophet to describe future offerings; for example, Isaiah, speaking of the coming glories of Jerusalem, writes, “their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon Mine altar” Isa.56.7; Jeremiah states: “Neither shall the priests the Levites want a man before Me to offer burnt offerings, and to kindle meat offerings, and to do sacrifice continually” Jer.33.18; at the end of Zechariah’s prophecy he speaks of nations coming up to Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Tabernacles, referring to “they that sacrifice” Zech.14.16-21; the prophet Malachi speaks of the sons of Levi being purged, “that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness” Mal.3.3. Of course, even if there was only one passage speaking of future offerings, it should be sufficient for us to believe it. We ought not to need any more passages to convince us, but the fact that there are several means those opposing literal offerings have more than one writer with whom to deal.
Spiritualising These Details Is a Recipe for Chaos
Those who try to tell us that all these details are symbolic of the present Church age have a lot of explaining to do, without anything on which to base their spiritualisation. The decision as to what all the descriptions mean is purely at the whim of the interpreter. A multiplicity of interpretations is the only outcome, as there is nothing against which to check the ideas.
God Does not Deceive People
To say that God, in His Word, speaks of offerings, but that He never meant what He said to be taken literally is to come dangerously close (albeit unintentionally) to saying that God is being deceptive.
Thus, on a clear, straightforward reading of the prophecies of millennial sacrifices, there is no reason to dismiss them as being non-literal, unless one is bound to do so by rigid adherence to a system of belief that rules out literal interpretation.
So why are there so many who discount the belief in a real, future, millennial temple, with a sacrificial system, as taught in Ezekiel? There are several reasons, but the main one, and the most potent is this: they say it would be a massive step backwards. The New Testament clearly teaches, notably in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that Christ offered Himself as the full and final sacrifice for sins, accomplishing that to which the animal sacrifices pointed. His once-for-all sacrifice brought the sacrificial system to an end. To teach that there will be once again a temple in Jerusalem, a priesthood, and the offering of sacrifices and keeping of feasts, is to negate the clear teaching of the New Testament concerning the sacrifice of Christ.
This does sound like a weighty point, and it is indeed one of the strongest arguments that the Amillennialist has for his position, so it needs careful consideration.
We must ask: why would God want to re-introduce, in millennial days, that which He has done away with in the present day? In seeking to answer this, we will be helped by considering what purpose was served by the system of offerings in Old Testament days. Relative to our current discussion, there are three main functions that the offerings fulfilled:
Firstly, they provided lessons to Israel with regard to the character of God, and their relationship to Him. Every procedure must have impressed upon them (as it does upon us as we read) that God is a holy God, Who must be regarded and approached with the utmost reverence. They learned that they could not just approach Him in any way that they liked: there were proper procedures to follow, as the many regulations and rituals showed. They learned that sin was a very serious matter and that He would not tolerate it; for example, the fact that they had to wash themselves before appearing in His presence illustrated that graphically. They learned that sin brings death. They learned that God desired to have communion with people, and was willing to make open a way to Himself and that God could only be approached on the ground of sacrifice, hence the shedding of the blood of animals.
Secondly, the offerings were typical of Christ and of His Person and work. Nothing more needs to be said on that here, as all who have read the other chapters in this book will have found many ways in which each of the offerings relates to Him. So, in the many years before He came, the offerings were picture lessons, preparing the nation of Israel for the coming of the One Who would fulfil all those types, and Who would offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice to God.
Thirdly, the offerings were not just there to illustrate principles, or to provide picture lessons on what Christ would do; they provided atonement for the people. As with the previous point, there are many references that show this, but, for example, in the instructions for the burnt offering, we read in Lev.1.4: “And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.” Indeed, the most solemn feast was the Day of Atonement: “Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord” Lev.23.27. What exactly the word “atonement” means in the context will need to be discussed. For now it is sufficient to see that the offerings did not just have educative and typical purposes, but they functioned to ensure that the people of Israel were in good standing with God. Certainly we are left in no doubt that if they failed to observe the rituals they would be in serious trouble.
Now, looking ahead, if there are going to be offerings in the Millennium, it is reasonable to ask whether these offerings would have a similar function to those in the Old Testament. Let us consider each of the three purposes considered above:
Firstly, the offerings provided many lessons regarding God. If there is indeed to be a Millennium, with a temple in Jerusalem, then these offerings will still have a highly valuable purpose in this area. The Bible makes it clear that people will come up to Jerusalem from all lands to worship God, Zech.14.16-19. Many will come from nations that presently know little or nothing of God; they will want to know Who He is and what He is like. It is not difficult to see that, when people arrive in Jerusalem and observe the temple in all its grandeur, with offerings being made, it will deeply and constantly impress upon them, and upon all who observe, how great, glorious and holy God is, and how important it is for them to be right in His sight.
This visual means of teaching is not necessary for believers today, who constitute a heavenly people. We worship in the heavenly sanctuary, offering spiritual sacrifices, largely unseen and unnoticed by the peoples of this world. As for Israel, which as a nation has rejected the Messiah, it is certainly in no fit state for God to establish the priesthood, temple, and sacrifices. Nor are the educative effects of offerings needful today among the nations of the world, which reject God, and are not yet under His earthly rule. However, it will be altogether different when the Lord comes back to set up His kingdom: then it will be very important and instructive for there to be a large and public sacrificial system, which will teach lessons about God to Israel and the nations.
What of the second point: that the offerings typified Christ and His sacrifice? To those of spiritual discernment, they would have been pictures of the coming Messiah, His Person, His character, and His sacrifice. It is difficult to say with any great certainty how much they would have understood. We are certainly at a great advantage with respect to them, as we have the benefit of Christ having come and fulfilled those types, so that we can see things in the offerings that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for them to see. However, the fact remains: they typified Christ and His sacrifice.
Looking ahead to the future kingdom, the offerings will once again provide glorious pictures of Christ and His work, and will be appreciated in a way that they could never have been before He came. As godly saints of a future day come up to the temple, and make their offerings, there will doubtless be joy and appreciation in their hearts, as they realise the significance of what they are doing, and that in offering the sacrifices they are commemorating the sacrifice that Christ made upon the cross.
Lest it be argued that it would be wrong to see these millennial sacrifices as being typical of Christ and His work; that physical symbols only looked forward, and not backwards; we should remind ourselves that, even in this present day, when we partake of the Lord’s supper, we are taking physical items (bread and wine) and using them as symbols of a past sacrifice. So it cannot be wrong to use physical things as symbols, even after the event being symbolised has already taken place. (This is not to suggest for a moment that the Lord’s supper is a re-enactment of the sacrifice that took place at Calvary. It most certainly is not, and neither will the millennial sacrifices be a re-enactment of it. It is just being pointed out that there is no reason in principle why the millennial sacrifices should not typify Christ’s sacrifice in a retrospective sense).
We come now to the third and final point: the fact that the Old Testament sacrifices were atoning. Looking to the future, the offerings in the Millennium are indeed also described in Scripture as atoning. A few verses in Ezekiel chapter 45 make this clear:
v.15: “And one lamb out of the flock, out of two hundred, out of the fat pastures of Israel; for a meat offering, and for a burnt offering, and for peace offerings, to make reconciliation for them, saith the Lord God”;
v.17: “And it shall be the prince’s part to give burnt offerings, and meat offerings, and drink offerings, in the feasts, and in the new moons, and in the sabbaths, in all solemnities of the house of Israel: he shall prepare the sin offering, and the meat offering, and the burnt offering, and the peace offerings, to make reconciliation for the house of Israel”;
v.20: “And so thou shalt do the seventh day of the month for every one that erreth, and for him that is simple: so shall ye reconcile the house”.
In each case, the word translated “make reconciliation” or “reconcile” is the Hebrew word kaphar, which is usually translated “make atonement”. So there is no doubt that the millennial offerings will have atoning value.
This reality brings us to the point where the denier of millennial sacrifices feels he is on unassailable ground. He says, “The sacrifices that Ezekiel and others refer to as yet future are also said to be atoning. So if you say that they will take place in a literal future temple, you are saying that the atoning work of Christ was not sufficient, that there is a need for further atoning sacrifices. That is a denial of the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.”
In the first part of this statement, he is correct: the offerings described in Ezekiel are atoning. It is to his claim in the ensuing part of his statement that the remainder of this chapter must be devoted.
Atonement in the Old Testament
So what then of the charge that to believe these offerings will take place is to deny the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice? To answer that, it is necessary to ask what exactly the Scriptures mean when they speak of the Old Testament offerings as being “atoning” – for example in passages such as:
Lev.1.4: “And he shall put his hand upon the head of the burnt offering; and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him”;
Lev. 4.20: “And he shall do with the bullock as he did with the bullock for a sin offering, so shall he do with this: and the priest shall make an atonement for them, and it shall be forgiven them”;
Lev.10.17: “Wherefore have ye not eaten the sin offering in the holy place, seeing it is most holy, and God hath given it you to bear the iniquity of the congregation, to make atonement for them before the Lord?”;
Lev.16.27: “And the bullock for the sin offering, and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp; and they shall burn in the fire their skins, and their flesh, and their dung.”
An explanation often given is that, since the word kaphar, translated “make atonement”, can mean ‘to cover’, the offerings associated with the tabernacle and temple served as a temporary ‘covering over’ of people’s sins, until the time of Christ’s death. In other words, the whole system of offerings (and in particular the annual Day of Atonement ritual) was effectively a ‘holding operation’, which enabled God to forgive sinners on a pro tem basis, until Christ finished the work at Calvary.
It will be argued below that this is not a true understanding of what is meant by “atonement” as far as the Old Testament sacrifices were concerned, and that it contributes to the problem that people have with the thought of millennial offerings. Consideration of the Scriptures relating to the subject has led the present writer to the view that when the Old Testament speaks of offerings being atoning, it is using the term in the context of the relationship between Jehovah and His earthly people, the nation of Israel, whom He had redeemed from bondage in Egypt: their communion with Him, and their fitness to worship and serve Him, particularly in connection with the tabernacle, and later the temple. He was dwelling in the midst of a sinful people, and if those people were to be able to live in the good of their relationship to Him, and to approach Him, they needed atonement, so that they would be able to function in relation to God in the place on earth where His presence was, and so that they would not die. Thus, when offerings made “atonement” they were not imparting salvation to the people; rather, the forgiveness and cleansing that they provided brought about for them, and maintained them in, a position where they could draw nigh to, and enjoy communion with, a holy God. In short, the benefits of these offerings were not eternal, but temporal, in at least two senses: not just in that they were efficacious only for a time, but also in that they related only to the life down here on earth; they did not procure eternal blessings. Let us look at some evidence for this view:
In the Old Testament, There Was Atonement for Places and Objects, as Well as People
That, under the old economy, atonement was made not only for people, but also for places and objects, is seen, for example, in the ritual of the Day of Atonement, where atonement was made for the holy place, the tabernacle and the altar: “And he shall make an atonement for the holy place … and so shall he do for the tabernacle … And he shall go out unto the altar that is before the Lord, and make an atonement for it” Lev.16.16-20. Now, we know that altars and places (not only the tabernacle structures, but also houses, Lev.14.53) and other inanimate objects do not need forgiveness. It is clear from the context that this “atonement” was a ceremonial purification, which enabled these places and objects to be used in Divine service.
In Lev.16.16 we read: “And he shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins: and so shall he do for the tabernacle of the congregation, that remaineth among them in the midst of their uncleanness.” This verse makes it clear that the reason why these inanimate items, to be used in the service of God, had to be atoned for was that the people were sinful, and that the sanctuary where they worshipped had, in the past year, been defiled because of that. So, it was not only that the people needed to be atoned for if they were to remain alive, be in communion with God, serve Him, and approach Him in worship, in the coming year. The sanctuary itself also had to be atoned for, so that it would be in a fit condition to be used for its purpose.
This shows that the term “make atonement” here is not speaking of providing salvation from sins. It cannot be, since it is used of inanimate things, which do not need salvation. As for persons, those who were already true believers would certainly have obeyed the solemn instructions to afflict their souls and abstain from work for the whole day, but that did not grant them salvation, which was already theirs. And it would have been possible for unbelieving Israelites (of whom there were many) to have rigidly followed the same instructions, right from the evening before, as the Lord commanded, Lev.16.29-31; 23.27-32, but it would have done nothing for them as far as salvation was concerned. What it did do for them was to ensure that they did not, at that time, come under the judgment of God for their sins, but could continue to enjoy the protection and benefits of being part of the congregation of Israel.
That this is so can be seen from the language used in the solemn commands that the Lord gave regarding afflicting of their souls and refraining from work, the implications of which are expressed, not in terms of positive blessedness (for those who obeyed the instructions), but in negative terms (for those who did not): “For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from among his people. And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people” Lev.23.29,30. Even for Aaron himself, the high priest, there is a terse warning: “that he die not” Lev.16.13. The cleansing obtained provided temporal survival, but not eternal salvation.
Atonement for People Did Not Always Relate Directly to Sinful Acts
That “atonement” as used in connection with the Old Testament offerings does not necessarily refer to the putting away of sins can be seen, for example, in the ritual prescribed in Lev.12.1-8, for a woman in the days after she had given birth. We read, “And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son, or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon, or a turtledove, for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, unto the priest: Who shall offer it before the Lord, and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath born a male or a female. And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles, or two young pigeons; the one for the burnt offering, and the other for a sin offering: and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”
Now no-one would suggest that atonement was being made for the woman because her having given birth was a sinful act, and it is equally evident that the ritual described had nothing whatsoever to do with the woman’s salvation, and that the sin offering that she brought did not have any value in procuring it. It is clear that it was a matter of ceremonial, ritual cleansing that was needed, and the offering was effectual in obtaining that.
The Typical Significance of the Offerings
Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to say something to guard against a possible misunderstanding: we need to clearly distinguish between the typical teaching from the offerings and what they actually did for the people who were carrying them out in that day. It is very easy to fail to differentiate between the two, and, unless that distinction is made, much of what has been read, and will be read, in this chapter will be misunderstood.
It is being argued in this chapter that the offerings did not procure salvation from sins for the people, but prevented them from immediately falling under the judgment of God, and allowed them to continue to benefit from His presence among them. That is not to deny in any way the beautiful typical teaching of these offerings. Take the two examples just considered: the Day of Atonement and the purification of a woman who had given birth:
The Day of Atonement did not bring about salvation for anyone (even if they kept all its commands), but it most certainly does speak of the atoning work of Christ, and the eternal blessings that flow to His people from it. (It also pictures the repentance of the nation of Israel in a day yet to come, when, in affliction of soul and ceasing from their own works, they will acknowledge concerning the Messiah, Whom they had “despised and rejected”, that “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed” Isa.53.1-6. We, believers of the present day, already appreciate what Israel will come to realise in the great day of its repentance, recovery and restoration.)
And, while the purification of the woman in Leviticus chapter 12 did not mean that she had sinned in giving birth, it is a picture of the uncleanness of the sinner, the need for cleansing from sin, and the means of it, in our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, in considering what has already been covered and in what lies ahead in this chapter, it must ever be borne in mind that the discussion is not concerned with what the offerings typified, but with what they actually brought about for the people of Israel in those days. With that in mind, let us move on.
Personal Cases from Old Testament Times
A look at some different periods of Old Testament history will also help us in seeing the true nature of atonement in those days:
Before the System of Offerings Was Established
Consider what the situation was before the establishment of the Levitical priesthood. There most surely were believers before then (Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, to name some prominent examples). True, they did make offerings, but there was no tabernacle established at that time, no ordained priesthood, and no formal ritual as to what was to be done, by whom, and when. Yet it is evident that these believers were saved (as, e.g., the first few verses of Hebrews chapter 11 make abundantly clear). Certainly they did not need the “atonement” that we read of so often in Leviticus in order to have their sins forgiven and be right with God. God did not change His method of putting people into a right relationship with Himself when He instituted the Levitical system. It was not that every believer prior to the establishment of the Levitical system was saved by faith, without any need for the tabernacle rituals, but that once this ritual was established, people needed to make these offerings in order to be justified in the sight of God. That would mean God changing His principles, which He does not do.
When Offerings Were Not Taking Place
The issue is compounded if we move forward to the carrying away into Babylon. The rituals in the tabernacle, and then the temple, had been going on for years, but there is one thing for certain: they did not continue during the seventy years of captivity in Babylon. We can legitimately ask: if the offerings were necessary in order for people to know the blessedness of the forgiveness of sins, what happened when those offerings ceased to be made? As we read the early chapters of Daniel, we do not see Daniel and his friends in panic because the means of their salvation had suddenly been done away with! Again, when we read the writings of Jeremiah, he is certainly full of sorrow at the destruction of Jerusalem, but the thought that the people are all going to perish because there are no longer any temple sacrifices is not one of the points he mentions, and one would have thought it would be the chief point if the sacrifices put away sins. Contrary to there being any consternation on the part of Daniel and others, they faithfully got on with serving God. The best explanation of this is that they understood the true nature of the offerings: that they were necessary as long as the temple stood, so that God’s people could function there in fellowship with Himself, but that their salvation rested on much firmer ground, which all the might of Babylon could not move.
While Offerings Were Taking Place
We have thought about what the situation was before the institution of the offerings, and when they came to an end for a number of years, but what of the position when they were going on? As above, the evidence is that they were not necessary for individual salvation. We will consider three cases: those in the wilderness, people in the land, and individuals who were not of the nation of Israel:
Consider a godly Israelite on the wilderness journey: Joshua, for example, who was a true believer, even before the sacrificial system began (e.g. Ex.24.13). Nothing could take away his salvation, any more than it could take away ours. Yet, under the Leviticial system, he might sin, and bring an offering, which would grant him forgiveness. After some time, he might sin again, and bring an offering again, for which he would be forgiven again. Now, it is not that he lost his salvation when he sinned, and had to keep getting saved again every time. If that were so, people would have been ‘saved and lost’ multiple times throughout their lives, and if a godly person sinned and died before making an offering he would have perished eternally! The “making atonement” did not provide salvation for His people. What it did was to ensure that their fellowship with God, and their service for Him (which were so precious to Him and so vital to them) were able to continue.
Now, let us think of when they were in the land, for example, the early chapters of 1Samuel. There were horrible abuses going on in connection with the tabernacle in those days, which were thoroughly displeasing to God, bringing down His judgment on the priestly family and the nation, 1Sam.2.12-17,22-36. However, there were godly people at that time, such as Hannah, the mother of Samuel, 1Sam.1.9-18; 2.1-10. If her salvation depended on the offerings in the tabernacle, it would have been a sad situation for her, but thankfully it did not. Malpractice in the offering of sacrifices by the supposed spiritual guides of the nation was a serious matter, but it did not deprive godly saints of their right standing before Him.
Hannah was of the people of Israel. What of those who believed and who were not of that nation? There are some such that we can confidently identify, as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself indicates that they came into blessing: the widow of Zarephath, Naaman, Lk.4.25-27 with 1Kgs.17.8-24 and 2Kgs.5.1-27, the people of Nineveh, and the Queen of Sheba, Lk.11.29-32 with Jonah 3.5-10; 4.10,11 and 1Kgs.10.1-13. All of them acknowledged the God of Israel, and, while we could debate what level of spiritual understanding they reached, it would be hard to dismiss them all as unbelievers, especially when the Lord mentions the first two as having come under Divine blessing, and the latter two as having a role as effective ‘witnesses for the prosecution’ in the judgment of the generation that rejected the Lord when He was on earth. They all returned to or remained in their own nations, and they were not commanded to come up to Jerusalem to make offerings for their atonement. The basis of their salvation was not found in the Levitical offerings, but in their personal trust in God. If they were not part of the nation of Israel, or coming up to worship in the temple, then there was no need for the offerings as far as they were concerned.
The Evidence from the Epistle to the Hebrews
The Offerings Did not Take Away Sins
Hopefully enough has been said to show the meaning of atonement, as far as the offerings were concerned. The question still needs to be asked: does this agree with what is taught in Hebrews? Let us turn to chapter 10. There the writer states lucidly, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” Heb.10.1-4.
Note that he does not say that the blood of animals used to take away sins, but that it does not do so now. It is an absolute statement: the blood of animals never did, or could, take away sins. He states, with undeniable logic, a proof that this is so: these sacrifices kept on being offered, year after year. Rather than taking away sins, they served as an ongoing reminder to the people of how sinful they were. So there was never freedom of conscience under the old system.
Thus, when we read Old Testament passages that link atonement directly with sins, such as “And he shall burn all his fat upon the altar, as the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings: and the priest shall make an atonement for him as concerning his sin, and it shall be forgiven him” Lev.4.26, such statements must be read in the light of this passage from Hebrews, which must mean that the forgiveness referred to, obtained through the offerings, ensured that the barrier that his sin had put between the person and God had been removed, and that the offerer was, once again, in a fit state to approach Him, but it was not forgiveness in the full, absolute, eternal sense. Only the blood of Christ could provide that, as the writer to the Hebrews indicates: “And for this cause He is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance” Heb.9.15.
The Offerings Provided Outward Purification
What then did the offerings do for the people? Again, the writer to the Hebrews leaves us in no doubt: “the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh” Heb.9.13. This is in line with what we have seen earlier: they did have a very positive effect, but it was as far as the flesh was concerned, and not the conscience; the offerings provided a cleansing, which allowed the people to continue in the benefits of their relationship with God, but not once-for-all cleansing for sin, or a clear conscience. So the following verse stands in glorious contrast: “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” Heb.9.14.
Salvation Has Always Been by Faith, not Rituals
It is significant that it is in the Epistle to the Hebrews that we have that famous record of the faithful from Old Testament days, chapter 11. What is clear is that salvation has always been “by faith”, and not by offerings. The very first case given shows the relationship of the Old Testament believer to offerings: “By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh” Heb.11.4. Abel’s offering did not procure his righteous standing before God, but was evidence of it, and it was so for any godly Hebrew who worshipped at the tabernacle or the temple: when he made his offering, it did not render him justified. He already had that standing by faith, but it was evidence of his faith, and it put him in a position that enabled him to worship God acceptably.
Those who Went Back to Judaism Were Giving the Offerings a Status They Never Had
So, the mistake of those people to whom the Hebrew writer refers, who were renouncing their Christian profession and returning to Judaism, is not that they were going back to depend on sacrifices that used to be efficacious as far as dealing with sins were concerned, but were no longer so; rather, they were going back to sacrifices that never were efficacious in putting away sins, even when they were operational under God. If these people were going back to that, they were saying that these sacrifices were efficacious, and the great warning in Hebrews is that if anyone turns away from the sacrifice of Christ, there is no other sacrifice available. As the writer so solemnly puts it: “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” Heb.10.26,27.
Justification by Faith before the Death of Christ
Before moving on to consider the present and future positions, we must pause to consider in more detail how people received a righteous standing before God in the centuries before Christ died. It has been argued in this chapter that the offerings were not the ground on which people were justified; this could come about only by faith.
That raises a couple of questions, which need to be answered: firstly, faith in what, or in whom?; secondly, if God did not render sinners righteous on the grounds of the Levitical offerings, or even on their observance of or response to them, then on what basis did He do so?
The Object of Saving Faith
Clearly it was not just “faith” that brought about a righteous standing. Faith must have an object. Nor was it faith in anything. Faith must have the right object. It had to be in the true God. This was not just belief in His existence, or even that He alone is God: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble”, as James would remind us, Jms.2.19. In that famous chapter on faith, Hebrews chapter 11, we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that cometh to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” Heb.11.6. So, to have a right standing before God, people had to believe His Word, believe His promises.
Did they also believe in a coming Christ? Yes, in accordance with the extent to which His Person and work had been revealed to them. Revelation was progressive down through the ages of Old Testament history, so some Old Testament saints would have had a deeper understanding and appreciation of Who the Messiah was, and what He would do, than others. For example, one would expect that Abel, who lived long before Moses wrote the Pentateuch, would have known less of Christ than Isaiah, who wrote such sublime descriptions of Him and His work, for example, in chapters 9 and 53 of his prophecy. Yet even back in Genesis there are strong Messianic allusions, upon which believers would have rested by faith, such as “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel” Gen.3.15, and “God will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering” Gen.22.8. However, it is certainly easier for us, looking back, to see the full meaning of these references than it would have been for those hearing them at the time. We can rest in the knowledge that God, Who knows every heart, knew exactly how much had been revealed to each person, and the extent to which each understood, or could be expected to have understood, what had been disclosed to them regarding the coming Christ. He was able to render persons righteous on the basis of their response by faith, to what had been made known to them.
As for the offerings, whilst they did not procure justification, that is not to say that they had no role as far as faith was concerned. As has already been pointed out, they had an educational and a typical role, and in this way they pointed very clearly to God, His demands, and the provision He would make for sin, in the Person and work of His Son. So, while putting faith in the offerings themselves would not have secured justification, a person who appreciated what the offerings stood for, and rested upon that by faith, was right in the sight of God, in the fullest sense.
The Basis on Which Sinners Were Declared Righteous
It is argued, and rightly so, that God cannot justly declare a sinner righteous with no basis; there must be grounds on which He does so. So, when the question is asked: “On what grounds did He declare people righteous before Christ came?”, many jump to the answer that it was on the grounds of the offerings, which provided a ‘temporary covering’ until Christ came and died. In this chapter, a case has been made that this is not what is taught in Scripture.
What then was the basis on which God could righteously justify sinners before Christ died? That question is answered in Rom.3.24,25: “Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God”. The word “remission” is not the usual word; in fact, this is its only occurrence in the New Testament. Newberry, in the margin of his Bible, renders it ‘passing over’, and the phrase “that are past” as ‘done before’. Brown helpfully explains the phrase “through the forbearance of God”: “God not remitting but only forbearing to punish them, or passing them by, until an adequate atonement for them should be made. In thus not imputing them, God was righteous, but He was not seen to be so; there was no ‘manifestation of His righteousness’ in doing so under the ancient economy. But now that God can ‘set forth’ Christ as a ‘propitiation for sin through faith in His blood,’ the righteousness of His procedure in passing by the sins of believers before, and in now remitting them, is ‘manifested,’ declared, brought fully out to the view of the whole world.”2(italics his)
2 Brown, D. in “Jamieson, Fausset & Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible”, 1871.
So justification has always been on the basis of the death of Christ, and now that that death has taken place, God has been shown to have been righteous in justifying sinners who believed in Him before Christ came. To quote MacDonald: “How then could God save believing sinners in the O.T. period? The answer is that although Christ had not yet died, God knew that He would die, and He saved men on the basis of the still-future work of Christ. Even if O.T. saints didn’t know about Calvary, God knew about it, and He put all the value of Christ’s work to their account when they believed God. In a very real sense, O.T. believers were saved on credit. They were saved on the basis of a price still to be paid. They looked forward to Calvary; we look back to it.”3(italics his)
3 MacDonald, W. “Believer’s Bible Commentary; New Testament”. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 1990.
Note that in his statement in Rom.3.25 Paul makes no mention of the offerings. This is because the offerings did not bring about the justification of sinners. This is in line with what we have already seen: many people in Old Testament times were justified who never had any involvement with the offerings, so it cannot have been the offerings that provided their justification.
It must be emphasised that, in saying all this, we are not seeking to speak of the Old Testament offerings in a derogatory way, or to minimise their importance. They were instituted by God, and were fully effectual for the purpose for which they were ordained. But we need to avoid the mistake of thinking that they accomplished more than they really did.
The Current Position
What is the situation now, in the Church age? God is calling out a people from the nations of the world, who will form a redeemed company from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation, Matt.28.18-20; Acts 15.14; Rev.5.9.
God is not associated with any one particular nation, with worship centred in any particular city or building. There is no physical temple of God here on earth. The Jerusalem temple was destroyed in A.D. 70, and all the rituals associated with it came to an end. Even if that had not happened, and the temple ceremonies had continued, there would have been nothing of God in them. That is not God’s programme for the present age. Thus, since people are not coming to approach God in a man-made structure with a formalised, external system of rituals, there is no need for them to have ceremonial preparation, such as washings, sacrifices, and other rituals, to approach Him.
Also, anyone who thinks that the temple sacrifices would be a means of salvation and cleansing of the conscience is very sadly mistaken indeed. They never were, but to go back to them would be to say that they were, and are. Such is blasphemy against God and the sacrifice of Christ.
In the Millennium
What then of the future, when the Lord Jesus comes back to reign, and Jerusalem and its new temple become the focus of the worship of God? The world will be a very different place from what it is now. There will be righteous rule and peace, and conditions will be vastly altered from the present sad state of this world. Isaiah chapter 11, for example, provides a glorious description of the new conditions.
However, there will still be sinners, as Scriptures such as Isa.65.20; Rev.19.15; 20.7,8 make clear. People, however holy they are, will still be living in unchanged bodies, and subject to sin. They will be coming in this state into the presence of a holy God, whose glory has returned to the house, Ezek.43.1-5, and so it will be necessary once again for the temple and those who participate in its rituals to make offerings, and to be atoned for. Indeed this is exactly what Ezekiel records: atonement both for people, e.g. Ezek.45.15,17,20, already quoted, and for objects, “Seven days shall they purge (kaphar) the altar and purify it” Ezek.43.26. As before, the role of these offerings will be educational, typical, and atoning, in the sense that they will provide cleansing, to keep the people in communion with God, and enable them to function in the temple. They will not take away from the finished work of Christ, any more than the old offerings added to it (which is nothing, in both cases). If the Amillennialist argues that to have offerings in the Millennium would be to take away from the work of Christ, then, to be consistent, he must argue that the Old Testament offerings were adding to it. The true understating is that neither past nor future offerings impact on the work of Christ, either positively or negatively.
The eternal salvation of any individual will not depend on those sacrifices: it would be possible for an unbeliever to make the offerings, and if he does, it will not do him an iota of good as far as salvation is concerned; and a believer who, through circumstances, may not be able to make the offerings will not lose his or her salvation as a result. Salvation will be on the basis of faith alone, in Christ alone, as it always has been. The offerings in the Millennium will not give anyone salvation from sins, just as they did not do so before.
There are those, not all of them Amillennialists, who believe that, even setting aside the issue of what is meant by “atonement” as far as the offerings are concerned, to hold that there will be millennial offerings is to say that God would be “going backwards” and regressing to something that He has made obsolete. Let us now consider that view:
God’s Programme Is Moving Forwards
Contrary to being a retrograde step, offerings will mark a great advance in God’s programme. Currently God is taking out of the nations a people for His Name: His Church, Acts 15.14. Thus, the present day is very different from the days before. The Church is a heavenly people, Phil.3.20, a holy temple, Eph.2.21, “a habitation of God through the Spirit” Eph.2.22. We worship in the heavenly sanctuary, Heb.8.2, where our High Priest has gone for us, Heb.6.20; we constitute a priesthood, 1Pet.2.5,9; and we offer spiritual sacrifices, 1Pet.2.5; Heb.13.15,16.
However, the current age will not be the last one in earth’s history. God still has much to do on this planet. The last view the city of Jerusalem had of Christ was on a cross. There is no way that God is going to let matters rest there. No: when the Church is complete, Christ will take it to heaven, and not many years later will return in power and glory, defeating His foes. Many Jews and Gentiles will trust in Him as Saviour, and He will set up His kingdom of righteousness and peace, with the administration centred in Jerusalem, and extending all over the earth. Far from being a retrograde step, it will be a tremendous step forward, when the Lord Jesus is acknowledged and reigns in this world that rejected Him. Indeed, to suggest that the Lord Jesus will never be vindicated and establish His righteous rule in this world, with God’s earthly people, Israel, as the head of the nations, is to leave very serious business unfinished. We can be confident that God will fulfil His prophecies of that future reign, including the temple and the offerings associated with it.
Offerings Will Be Appropriate to the New Situation
In that day, when God is dealing with earthly nations and peoples in a physical city, it is not at all surprising or incongruous that there will once again be a physical, visible system of worship. A glorious temple will be built, and people will come and offer sacrifices, as is detailed for us in Ezekiel. It will be an exceedingly impressive sight, to see people of all nations coming up to the city and offering sacrifices, worshipping and praising God there. It is certainly not doing any despite to the sacrifice of Christ: He will be the One worshipped and glorified, and the evidence of His once-for-all sacrifice will be abundantly clear. There certainly will be no danger of people misunderstanding the true nature of those sacrifices, and thinking that they are undermining His work in any way!
The Old Covenant Will Not Be Restored
It will not constitute a return to the Old Covenant. As prophesied in Jeremiah, Jer.31.31-34, and confirmed in Hebrews, Heb.8.6-13; 10.15-18; it will be the New Covenant that will be operational: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put My law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” Jer.31.31-34.
These words do not express regression: the new covenant will not be according to the old one; the laws will be in their hearts; they will all know the Lord; and will experience forgiveness, with their sins remembered no more. This will be a most blessed experience, very different indeed from the system under which the former offerings operated.
The Offerings Will Not Be Identical to Those Made under the Old Covenant
As for the details of what will take place, what is described in Ezekiel is distinct from the Old Testament sacrificial system in many ways. For example, the Day of Atonement, and the offerings associated with it, are not there. There is no killing of a goat, the sprinkling of its blood upon the mercy seat; no placing of the hands on the head of the other goat, and it being led into the wilderness. There are many other aspects of the old Judaistic system that are absent.
So, literal fulfilment of what is described in Ezekiel does not mean a retreat back to the Mosaic system, by any means. On the contrary, it will be a great step forward in God’s purpose for this world and its peoples.
It is not valid to say that, because Hebrews teaches that it would have been apostasy for a professing Christian early in the present age to return to the temple sacrifices then operating, this means that there can be no return to temple sacrifices in a future age. The difficulty arises because of a failure to see the distinctions between the Church and Israel and the nations, and between the present age and the age to come. To say that, because God forbad people from going back to the temple offerings in the past, then He cannot Himself re-institute temple offerings for a different people in a different age, is effectively to deny God the right to determine what He does!
There is every reason to accept that the system of offerings described by Ezekiel will take place in the blessed future age in this world. A proper understanding of the nature of Old Testament offerings enables us to see that millennial offerings will not in any way detract from the finished work of Christ, and an appreciation of God’s plans for this world allows us to see that they mark, not a slide backwards, but a great advance.
Ezek.43.4,5: “And the glory of the Lord came into the house … and, behold, the glory of the Lord filled the house”;
Hab.2.14: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”.