One of the more confusing issues in biblical studies is the matter of animal sacrifices in the coming messianic (millennial) kingdom. In light of the finished work of Jesus on the cross, why would animal sacrifices be needed? The fact is that five different prophets (Ezekiel has 50 verses on it) tell us that such will take place. This article asks and answers a number of background questions (such as, why were there animal sacrifices in the OT) in order to come to an understanding on this issue.
More than one person is truly puzzled by the numerous statements in the Old Testament that there will be a temple and animal sacrifices in the coming kingdom of King Jesus. Some are surprised by the fact that such is even found in the Scriptures, while others border on being outraged by this teaching since it seems to them to devalue Jesus’ death on the cross. Those who are aware of animal sacrifices in the millennial kingdom, and who believe that this is a future kingdom on the earth (premillennialists) often find it hard to explain why there would be such sacrifices. Those who believe we are presently in Jesus’ kingdom (amillennialists and postmillennialists) dismiss the idea of future animal sacrifices as the literalism of premillennialism gone bad.
SOME PRELIMINARY ISSUES AND QUESTIONS
Before we discuss the reasons for animal sacrifices in the upcoming millennial kingdom, there are several matters that we should deal with.
(1) Exactly where do the Old Testament prophets speak of a future temple and future animal sacrifices? Actually, both Old and New Testaments speak about a future temple and/or a future sacrificial system. This great volume of material makes it impossible to quickly dismiss the subject or to explain away one or two difficult verses. A temple and sacrifices go together. The purpose for a temple was to provide a way for sinful people to approach a holy God, and this always included sacrifices. To have a temple is to assume sacrifices in it. This basic fact is important in our discussion about a future temple and future animal sacrifices.
The following prophets speak about animal sacrifices, which include guilt offerings and sin offerings. Ezekiel gives us the most information, but others contribute as well. The passages that mention the sacrifices are: Ezekiel 40:38-43; 42:13; 43:18-27; 44:11-15; 44:27-29; 45:15-25; 46:2-15; 46:20-24; Isaiah 56:7; 60:7; 66:20-21; Jeremiah 33:15-18; Malachi 3:3-4; and Zechariah 14:16-19. Others refer to a future temple, including the above mentioned prophets, along with Joel, Micah, Haggai, the Lord Jesus and the apostles Paul and John. There is an immense amount of material which speaks about this matter.
We are to approach these portions literally (normally) as we would the rest of the Scriptures. However, because of theological concerns, many have argued that we cannot, and should not, take these passages literally, but rather symbolically. But if these are to be taken symbolically, just what are these scriptures talking about? There are hundreds of details in these passages. If they are symbolic, the symbols are never explained. This spiritualizing approach leaves large portions of the Scriptures and hundreds of Holy Spirit inspired details without any meaning. The resulting “exposition” of these passages becomes little more than the speculations of the interpreter. No. It is best to take these passages as teaching that there will be a real temple in the millennial kingdom where actual animals will be sacrificed.
(2) Is this future system a return to the Mosaic law? No. What lies ahead is not a return to the standards and practices of the “old” covenant. The Apostle Paul is clear in Galatians 3 and 4 that the Mosaic (old) covenant ended with the arrival of the Messiah Jesus. God had promised to Israel that the day was coming when He would make a “New” covenant with Israel (Jer. 31:31-34) which would replace the old. The New Covenant is based on the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (Luke 22:20). Though all the provisions of the New Covenant were provided for by Jesus’ death, the fact is that national Israel (the one with whom the covenant was made) has never experientially entered into the covenant. When the millennial kingdom comes, it is the New Covenant which is in force, not the “old”. Believers in the millennial kingdom will have the Book of Hebrews, and all of God’s revelation, and will be fully aware that it is only the blood of Jesus that permanently and eternally removes sin. Kingdom rules, not Mosaic rules, are in effect.
Another observation that should be made is that when the details of the future temple and sacrifices are looked at, there are great and profound differences to be seen. For example, the detailed plan of the temple given by Ezekiel with its porches, chambers, walls, gates, steps and various other rooms are so very different from the temples of Solomon or Herod. This is simply not a description of those temples. Furthermore, the temple described by Ezekiel is huge, covering an area of one square mile, thus not fitting on the present temple mount. Also, this future temple, unlike those in the past, will not actually be located in the millennial city of Jerusalem. (As a side note: A few years ago I was at the Temple Institute in Jerusalem where they are preparing for the rebuilding of Ezekiel’s temple. I asked one of the presenters there what they thought about the dimensions given in Ezekiel and the apparent problem that the present temple mount could not possible hold Ezekiel’s temple. The response was that we cannot take all the details literally. So interestingly, they are passionately preparing for building the literal temple of Ezekiel, but not according to the floor plan of Ezekiel. And in this, they are like many Christian theologians who spiritualize the text, seeing the details as symbolic).
It should further be noted that some elements are missing from the details of Ezekiel’s temple and sacrificial system. For example, there will be no high priest (since Jesus will be the High Priest), no ark of the covenant, no candlestick or table of showbread and no veil. Also, it is just the descendants of Zadok who will function in a priestly role (as was promised by the Lord—1 Sam. 2:35; 1 Kings 2:27, 35). And there are numerous differences in details related to numbers and amounts in the two sacrificial systems (so much so that some rabbis say that it will be up to Elijah to explain these things). All these point to the reality that the millennial kingdom will not be a return to the “old” covenant.
(3) What was God’s purposes for animal sacrifices? And did they contribute to the salvation (justification) of people in the Old Testament? The answers to these questions will frame the answer to the question related to millennial sacrifices. All biblically knowledgeable believers know that not one sin was ever taken away by animal sacrifices. Hebrews 9:11-14; 9:25-10:14 powerfully declares that all sin was paid for completely by the death of Christ on the cross. And in contrast to His death, not one sin was removed by the death of an animal. So, for those who might think that the idea of future animal sacrifices demeans Christ’s death, it doesn’t. The past sacrifices did not remove sin, and those in the future will not remove sin. In the next article we will deal in some detail with what the O.T. sacrifices really did, including the concept of “atonement”.
Furthermore, in evaluating the role of O.T. sacrifices, we must remember the clear discussions of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3 and Romans 4, where he presents Abraham as the great example of one in the O.T. who was saved (justified) by faith alone, apart from any works including animal sacrifices. His point is that people have always been saved the same way—-justified by faith alone, based on the work of Christ alone.
It has been my experience that believers are often not clear on how people were saved in the Old Testament. When asked, they often mumble a little. They might believe that animal sacrifices didn’t take sin away, but frankly are not sure as to the role of animal sacrifices. But that point must be clear if there is going to be clarity in understanding the sacrifices in the millennium.
Regarding salvation (justification) in the Old Testament as well as the New, there are some things that we need to remember. First, some things are the same. (1) The need for salvation is the same, since all people are equally lost. (2) The basis for salvation is the same, and that is the death of Christ on the cross. His death alone removes sin. (3) The requirement for salvation is the same, and that is faith. (4) The object of salvation remains the same, and that is faith in the true God who alone can justify. But, second, the content of one’s faith is not the same. From N.T. times onward, one must believe in Jesus Christ as the one and only Savior (Acts 16:30-31). People in the O.T. did not know about the cross, and so, the content of what they were to believe differs from people in the N.T. or in our age. According to the Apostle Peter, not even the prophets who spoke about a suffering messiah understood what they were writing about (1 Peter 1:10-12). The point being made here is that justification by faith alone is God’s way of salvation, and that animal sacrifices never played a role in the justification of people who lived under the Mosaic covenant.
In our next article, we will take a look at some key details related to the purposes of animal sacrifices, and by so doing, come to a reasonable conclusion about what will take place in the future in the days of Messiah and His spectacular Jerusalem temple.