The dispensationalist’s insistence upon a return in the millennial age to the types and shadows associated with Old Testament prophetic expectation, amounts to a serious misreading of the course of redemptive history. By arguing for a new commemorative order based upon Old Testament typology which is yet to begin in the millennial age, dispensationalists see the future millennium not as a consummation, but as a return to the past.
When Jesus declared, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here,” (Matthew 12:6) and then told a Samaritan woman that he can give her “living water” (John 4:10-14), we are given a major clue that the pre-messianic understanding of God’s temple must be reinterpreted in the light of Jesus’ messianic mission.
The temple occupies a significant place in the witness of Israel’s prophets regarding God’s future eschatological blessing for the nation. This witness points forward to the coming of Jesus. When Jesus connects his mission to this prophetic expectation, we are greatly aided in our understanding of the nature and character of the millennial age as a present reality—not a future hope.
We begin with the Old Testament expectation regarding the temple in Jerusalem at the commencement of the era of “Second Temple” Judaism. Isaiah (2:2-4) and (Micah 4:1-5), both speak of God’s future blessing upon Israel in the last days, depicting it as a time when God’s people will go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the rebuilt and reconsecrated temple, where God’s people will once again renew themselves in the ways of the Lord.
In Isaiah 56, the prophet speaks of those who hold fast to God’s covenant (v. 4), and who love the name of the Lord and keep his Sabbaths (vv. 6-8). They will be brought to the holy mountain and house of the Lord, which is the temple and the house of prayer for all the nations (v. 7). A similar vision is given in Isaiah 66:20-21. Isaiah speaks of how the Israelites will bring their grain offerings to God’s temple, as God renews the priesthood (vv. 20-21). In Zechariah’s prophetic vision, we are told that one day the sacrifices of Israel will once again be offered and will be acceptable to God (Zechariah 14:16-19).
With such prophetic expectation in the minds of virtually every Jew living in first century Palestine, it is no wonder that Jesus’ declaration of God’s coming judgment upon the magnificent temple as rebuilt by Herod came as both a shock and an offense. “Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2). How dare this man say that the prophetic expectation of a glorious temple is fulfilled in his own person. Jesus challenged this misguided expectation, by declaring “destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). It was not until after Jesus had died and was raised from the dead, that the meaning of these words became clear; when Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple, he was speaking of his own body (John 2:22). This self-identification is what he meant when he said that one greater than the temple is here!
Furthermore, there is the Old Testament prophecy of a new and glorious temple, found in Ezekiel 40-48. Ezekiel envisions a future time for God’s people in which the temple will be rebuilt, the priesthood will be re-established, true sacrifices will once again be offered and the river of life will flow forth from the temple. How we interpret this prophecy will have a significant bearing on the question of whether or not we believe that there will be a future millennial age upon the earth.
Our dispensational friends believe that this prophecy will find a literal fulfillment in the millennial age. According to the dispensational stalwart J. Dwight Pentecost,
“The glorious vision of Ezekiel reveals that it is impossible to locate its fulfillment in any past temple or system which Israel has known, but it must await a future fulfillment after the second advent of Christ when the millennium is instituted. The sacrificial system is not a reinstituted Judaism, but the establishment of a new order that has its purpose the remembrance of the work of Christ on which all salvation rests. The literal fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy will be the means of God’s glorification and man’s blessing in the millennium.”