Published Online Books
A Theological Pilgrimage
The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today
The Pentecostal Reality
Published Online Writings
Prophecy by the Book
Scripture: God's Written Word
The Holy Spirit in the Early Church
All of our study thus far has contributed to a realization that the critical center of biblical faith is the spiritual realm. Moreover, this spiritual reality consists of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. Recall the climactic scene in Revelation 11:15 where "loud voices in heaven" cry: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever"! Accordingly, the whole of history, as recorded in Old and New Testaments, is a movement from and to that great day of spiritual victory over spiritual darkness. The Bible is a progressive revelation of how that will be accomplished.
Since the New Testament deals more specifically than the Old Testament with this spiritual fulfillment, the New Testament is the final source of our understanding of biblical prophecy. However, this by no means rules out the Old Testament as long as we see it from a Christian perspective, and recognize that the prophecies therein are to be ultimately fulfilled in the spiritual realm.
Let us turn again to Israel in the Old Testament. The people of Israel were God's people; however, although ethnic Israel continues (as previously discussed), Christians (whether Gentile or Jew) became and are now God's people (recall Paul's words in Romans 9:25 quoting Hosea, "Those who were not my people I will call 'my people'"), not as a political or national entity but a spiritual reality, the church of Jesus Christ. Thus many Old Testament prophecies that outwardly speak of Israel, or Israel and Judah, refer to the future "Israel of God." For example, in Jeremiah 31 there is the prophecy: "Behold, the days are coming...when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah...I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (vv. 31, 33). Outwardly this sounds like a prophecy to be fulfilled some day when a united Israel and Judah will become a new covenant people. A literal interpretation might suggest such, even that it will occur after a future return of Jews to their native land. However, according to the New Testament, this prophecy is fulfilled not in ethnic Israel but in Christ and the church. Jesus, as the Book of Hebrews says, became "the mediator of a new covenant" (9:15), and chapter 8:8-12, which is largely a quotation from Jeremiah 31:31-34, shows that, although the language still refers to the house of Israel and the house of Judah, it actually applies to what Christ has accomplished through His mediatorial sacrifice and death, thereby bringing a new people into existence. It would, therefore, be a serious error to seek to apply the prophecy to Israel as a nation perhaps sometime in the future.
This is the danger, I might add (as earlier), of seeking invariably to apply a literal method of interpretation throughout the Bible. Many passages call for a spiritual interpretation, including the one we have just considered. The reason: the New Testament itself often spiritualizes what was said in the Old Testament so that, as just observed, "the house of Israel" and "the house of Judah" are no longer literally the recipients of the promises, but those who believe in Christ, hence the church, the new Israel of God. Without a spiritual interpretation we are still back in the Old Testament and fail to recognize the wonder of spiritual fulfillment in Christ and those who belong to Him.
To resume: the nation of Israel, God's Old Testament people, was, therefore, a foreshadowing of the new Israel to come. For instance, even the hallowed Passover feast, about which Israel was commanded by God: "You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever" (Exod. 12:24), was only a preparation for the passover of Christ—"Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7 nasb). The Old Testament sacrifices on the Day of Atonement were declared to be a perpetual statute—"And this shall be an everlasting statute for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins" (Lev. 16:34). However, as Christians, we know that this statute has been fulfilled by the once for all (not once a year) offering up of Christ as the Lamb of God for the sins of the whole world. Again there is a spiritual fulfillment (not an abrogation but a fulfillment), and no longer are priests and sacrificial animals necessary.
Incidentally, some people today believe that many of these sacrifices will be reinstituted because in Ezekiel 40-48 (which see) the visionary temple to come depicts animal sacrifices being offered (43:18-27). This is a highly regrettable misunderstanding of an Old Testament prophecy which, despite some difficulties in interpretation, is to be fulfilled in a new and spiritual manner. The Old Testament sacrificial system has forever been done away—become "obsolete" just like the covenant (Heb. 8:13)—and will never be reinstituted on this earth, or in a millennium to come (as some people advocate).
In this matter of a rebuilt temple, many Jews today are determined to accomplish a rebuilding on the mount where the temple stood and now stands the Moslem Dome of the Rock. Even some Christians view this as essential to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
Here then is a good test of reading prophecy by the Book. How, in this particular case, are we to deal prophetically with Ezekiel 40-48? The best answer is once again to turn to the New Testament and see what it has to say about such a temple. An aphorism states: "What is latent in the Old is patent in the New"—or, better, what is less clear in the Old Testament is more clearly shown in the New Testament. Hence, we look again to the New Testament for help and guidance. However, when we turn there, nothing is to be found about the rebuilding of a material temple.
For example, Jesus has much to say about the destruction of the temple—rebuilt after Ezekiel's time (significantly, however, rebuilt not according to the specifications in Ezekiel)—but nothing about a new temple to rise some day in its place (again see Matt. 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). In fact, it would seem contrary to Jesus' whole spirit even to imagine such a temple. In John's Gospel, Jesus declared to the woman at the well that "neither on this mountain [in Samaria] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father...God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (4:21, 24). No earthly temple any place, including Solomon's temple, Herod's temple, or Ezekiel's visionary temple can possibly suffice.
Paul, likewise, has nothing to say in any of his letters about Ezekiel's temple or anything like it. In fact, the word "temple" is spiritualized (there's that word again!) by Paul to refer to believers themselves, for example, "Do you not know [he writes the Corinthians] that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you" (1 Cor. 3:16). Again, "We are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor. 6:16). Once more, Paul speaks of believing Jews and Gentiles being "members of the household of God" and that "the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord" (Eph. 2:19 and 21). There simply is no place in Paul's teaching, any more than in Jesus', for a future earthly temple.
But what then do we do with Ezekiel's visionary temple (it is in the Bible!)? The best answer, I suggest, is to see it just like the earlier temple of Solomon and the tabernacle of Moses: as a type or foreshadowing of the spiritual to come. There is a far more glorious fulfillment than anything Ezekiel foresaw! We no longer need a Holy of holies, as depicted in all the Old Testament descriptions of tabernacle and temple, and in some detail in Ezekiel's temple, because Christ has once for all entered in, and the curtain has been rent in two, so that now we the church are God's dwelling place in the Spirit. And some day in the age to come—the new heavens and new earth—as depicted in Revelation 21 and 22, there will be an even richer fulfillment of Ezekiel's vision.
On this latter point, one of the most vivid scenes in Ezekiel's temple is that showing water issuing "from below the threshold of the temple" (47:1), becoming a river that brings life "wherever the river goes" (v. 9) and "on the banks, on both sides of the river...all kinds of trees for food" with "leaves for healing" (v. 12). In the Book of Revelation there is no longer a temple, "for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb" (21:22), and from that throne flows "the river of the water of life" (2:1), and "on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit...and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (v. 2). Thus memorably and beautifully is Ezekiel's visionary earthly temple transcended and fulfilled in the glories of the world to come!
Let us return again to the Old Testament and this time look back to Israel's early days, particularly to the pilgrimage of Israel from Egypt to the Promised land. Here again we behold a foreshadowing of spiritual things to come. As Christians we recognize ourselves as being set free from bondage not to Egypt as a nation but from bondage to sin and evil. We read the Old Testament account in Exodus with thanksgiving, for we know a far greater fulfillment—a spiritual one—than Israel did in Old Testament times. Israel after Egyptian bondage fought many enemies along the way; and after settling in Canaan she was almost endlessly involved in battle with her surrounding neighbors: Ammonites, Edomites, Moabites, and later with the larger empires of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. These nations are again and again shown to be in warfare against Israel. Now as Christians we see all this warfare in a more spiritual, even in a more serious, perspective. For as Paul puts it, "our struggle is not against flesh and blood [Moabites, Ammonites, Assyrians, etc.], but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces ['hosts' rsv] of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12 niv). It is spiritually the kingdom of the world (the evil kingdom) against the kingdom of God!----
Let us take a specific Old Testament example: Babylon—and then see how it is understood in the New Testament. Babylon in Chaldea was the great foe of Judah, and under Nebuchadnezzar Judah became a captive and exiled people. But Babylon was doomed to fall. Isaiah had earlier prophesied its destruction: "'I am stirring up the Medes against them...and Babylon...will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them'" (13:17 and 19). Later Isaiah adds: "'I will rise up against them,' says the lord of hosts, 'and will cut off from Babylon name and remnant, offspring and posterity...I will make it a possession of the hedgehog, and pools of water, and I will sweep it with the broom of destruction'" (14:22). Babylon thereafter was destroyed utterly, as Isaiah prophesied: we do not have to wait for a future fulfillment.
Yet "Babylon" reappears in the New Testament in 1 Peter 5:13—"She who is in Babylon...sends you greetings," (probably signifying Rome)* and in the Book of Revelation numerous times as "Babylon the great" (14:8; 16:19;17:5;18:2, 10, 21). In Revelation, this name first undoubtedly refers to Rome, the city of "seven hills" (17:9), but she is also earlier called "mother of harlots and of earth's abominations...drunk with the blood of the saints" (v. 6) and later "the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth" (v. 17). Hence the fall of Babylon, announced earlier in Chapter 14: "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great," is the fall of the worldly power—proud, lascivious, vile—that is totally opposed to all that Christ and Christian faith stand for. It is this Babylon, no longer an earthly city, either in Chaldea or in Italy, that is the enemy of all things Christian. It is this city—principality, power, dominant in all the kingdoms of earth—that we struggle against. But, praise God, her doom is sure!
How then do we read prophecy today about Babylon? No longer as an earthly city or power—not even as represented by Iraq despite its violent activity—but as the city of the world, the city of darkness, that for all its domination of the "kings of earth," worldly leaders, and its opposition to Christianity is doomed to be destroyed. When the angel in Revelation by way of anticipation announces the fall of Babylon, we can now appreciate what this means. It is the kingdom of the world—in all its secularity, immorality, and antichristian nature—collapsing before the inbreaking might of the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. We may say then that the destruction of physical Babylon prophesied in the Old Testament is a type or foregleam of the destruction of spiritual Babylon in the New Testament. It is not so much—if at all—a coming destruction of physical Babylon in our day but of the city of the world, the kingdom of the world, by the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
* See various commentaries, e.g., Peter H. Edwards, The First Epistle of Peter, NICNT, 202.
| 1. Introduction: The Return of Christ | 2. Procedure in Studying Prophecy |
Content Copyright ©1996 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D