In the year AD 70, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. It forced a massive change in Judaism. Suddenly there were no more sacrifices, no more Levitical priesthood, no more Temple ceremonies. For the Jews, who believed they were still under the Law of Moses, many of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) required in the Torah had to be modified or stopped altogether. This led to a new era known as Rabbinic Judaism, which continues to this day.
I asked a Jewish man named Shlomo—who is part of an organization called Mechon Mamre in Jerusalem—about the Jewish expectations for the future, and he shared with me the following:
This might seem strange, but all of the commandments of the Torah are permanent, in effect from the time they were given till the very end of time. So, while we have not had the Temple sacrifices since 70 C.E., we do need to eventually rebuild the Temple and renew the sacrifices as they were done originally. If we have not renewed the Temple before the Mashiach comes, then the Temple will be renewed in his time.Shlomo of Mechon Mamre
The Jews are not alone in this belief. Many who hold to Torahism—the belief that followers of Yeshua (Jesus) should be keeping the Law of Moses—also claim the Temple will one day be rebuilt. Moreover, they believe that all the Temple ceremonies, including sacrifices, will be renewed at that time. Indeed, several prophets write about the rebuilding of the Temple. We see this in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Malachi. What do these prophecies mean? A full examination of biblical prophecy on this point is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s look at a few important biblical truths that can help point us in the right direction.
Torahists agree with orthodox Judaism that the prophets’ writings clearly teach that the Temple will be physically rebuilt one day, and all its duties and responsibilities under the Torah will be renewed. Of course, the renewing of all the Temple laws is a challenging position to defend since many of those laws would undermine the work of Yeshua (Jesus). For example, if the blood sacrifices for sin required in the Torah are to one day be renewed, what was the point of Yeshua’s blood sacrifice on the cross? This issue puts our Torahist friends in a tough spot. On the one hand, if the blood sacrifices for sin are to be renewed, Yeshua’s sacrifice doesn’t seem to have accomplished anything. It was not “once for all,” as the Bible tells us in Heb 10:10 and elsewhere. On the other hand, if the blood sacrifices for sin are not to be renewed, then the Law of Moses is no longer binding. Because those sacrifices are required by the Law.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be a new Temple built one day, but it certainly impacts what we would expect the Temple’s purpose to be. There are Jews and Christians who believe the prophets’ visions will be fulfilled literally and they offer the actual blueprints of a new physical Temple. There are also Jews and Christians who believe that these prophecies—like many of the other prophecies throughout the Tanakh—are symbolic depictions not intended to be taken literally. They tell of God’s presence returning to His people in the Messianic kingdom, but not necessarily through a physical structure.
For example, the book of Ezekiel contains an elaborate vision of a new Temple and a new city. (Some believe the city in question is the new Jerusalem, though Ezekiel never actually uses the name “Jerusalem.”) In the book’s final two chapters, it becomes apparent this vision is most likely not literal. Ezekiel sees a tiny stream of water pouring out of the Temple, quickly growing into a deep flowing river. The water leads out of the Temple, then out of the city, then into the desolate desert, leaving behind a trail of new growth. It ultimately flows into the Dead Sea, turning it into a living sea teeming with life. This is imagery from the Garden of Eden, and I believe it reveals the full scale of Ezekiel’s vision. It’s not simply about constructing a new building in a new city, but rather it encompasses God’s ultimate plan to restore all of creation—including human beings—back into His life-giving presence.
Of course, in looking at the future rebuilding of the Temple—whatever that may or may not look like—we need to consider both the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament teachings on the subject. For example, we’re taught in several places that we believers in Yeshua are now the Temple in which God dwells (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:4-5). And in the book of Revelation, the apostle John wrote the following about his vision of the New Jerusalem, “And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Rev 21:22). How do we square John’s prophetic vision with those of the Old Testament prophets?
The biblical prophecies about rebuilding the Temple are mysterious and enigmatic, which is why the debate over whether or not they should be understood as literal has been going on for millennia. And it certainly won’t be solved here. Whichever position we take, we have to consider the final outcome in the context of the whole story of Scripture. In the excellent book Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus—written by three Israeli scholars who have come to follow Yeshua—we find the following regarding the Temple:
The continuous operation of the tabernacle with its sacrificial system, the Levitical priesthood, the ceremonial washings, etc. (i.e., the Sinai covenant), was specifically designed not to last. And as we meditate on the description of the tabernacle and its significance as found in Scripture for all believers today, its symbolism and built-in limitations are designed to point us to a better high priest, a better sacrifice, and a better temple to which we now have direct access in Yeshua.-Postell, Bar, Soref, Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus
And in the book, In Christ Alone, theologian Sinclair Ferguson writes:
In John 2, Jesus cleansed the temple. Presumably, there was anger in the voices that demanded to know his credentials. On what authority did He do this? He answered by a prophetic appeal to His own death and resurrection couched in terms of the destruction and raising again of another temple (John 2:19-22). Could any more daring way have been found to express the old order’s inadequacy? To a Jew, the temple was the most important building on earth. To Jesus, however, it was but a shadow, a temporary context for entering the presence of God. Christ was the reality to which such shadows pointed. He was God the Son come to ‘tabernacle among us’ (John 1:14). Jesus Himself is the new temple.-Sinclair Ferguson
Prophecies are challenging to work out. Even the prophecies that we see fulfilled in Scripture don’t always turn out the way we would have thought. Some are literal; for example, the prophecies about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), born of a virgin (Isa 7:14), and riding a donkey (Zech 9:9) were literally fulfilled by Yeshua. But many prophecies are not so literal, such as Ezekiel’s vision of the valley full of dry bones that come to life in Ezekiel 37.
This is why we can sometimes get prophecy wrong. Which is exactly what happened in the New Testament when not only the Jewish leaders but Jesus’ own disciples were expecting the Messiah to be a political king who would overthrow Rome. Yet, they weren’t totally wrong. In Acts 1:6-7, the disciples ask the resurrected Yeshua if He is now going to restore the kingdom to Israel. Yeshua answered, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” He did not say “no,” but rather “not yet.” The first-century Jews had no expectation that there would be a two-part coming of the Mashiach. They misunderstood the messianic prophecies, thinking they were all to happen all at once. Even as Yeshua was preaching about the Kingdom of God, no one realized it was being inaugurated in stages.
There are various legitimate ways to look at the prophecies about the rebuilding of the Temple. The fact is we won’t know if they are meant literally, or figuratively (or maybe some hybrid of the two) until they are actually fulfilled. It is not for us to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. This is why I believe it’s best not to be too dogmatic about how these temple prophecies might be fulfilled. What we do know is that whatever the outcome, it will not nullify the saving work God has already completed through His only begotten son, Yeshua.