It may not be well-known among either Christians or Jews that animal sacrifices will once again be offered on an altar in Jerusalem, given that the Jews’ sacrificial program was ended violently nearly 20 centuries ago upon that city’s destruction. Jesus foretold this suspension of Jerusalem’s place at the center of the Jewish nation and religion in Luke 22:24, saying: “Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” But prophet after prophet in the Old Testament foretold the re-establishment of Jerusalem at the center of a restored Israel in the coming kingdom age, which we learn from Revelation 20 will be a millennium in duration. God used the prophet Ezekiel in a special way to set out the particulars of the geography of Israel, of the architecture of the final temple, and of future sacrificial ceremony and priestly service among His redeemed earthly people.¹
Christians may find it difficult to understand the clear references in Ezekiel to a new program of sacrifices and offerings, since the Epistle to the Hebrews so clearly presents Jesus, the Son of God, to be the fulfillment of all the types and shadow in the law, including the sin offering. “By one offering (Himself) He has perfected forever them that are sanctified”, the Hebrew Christians were assured, and as to the need for further sacrifice, it is written: “Now where remission of these [sins and iniquities] is, there is no more offering for sin” (Hebrews 10:1-18). Yet Ezekiel speaks of burnt offerings, peace offerings, and sin offerings. How can this be understood?
Many teachers in historical Christendom have lumped these particulars in Ezekiel together with most other prophecies of a coming kingdom on earth and have explained them within the framework of amillennialism, preterism, or what we might loosely describe as “replacement theology.” In these systems of prophetic interpretation, most prophecy has already been fulfilled, there will be no literal future kingdom on earth, and the church has now replaced Israel as the spiritual heir of Jehovah’s apparently literal promises to the fathers and the prophets. However, these systems of interpretation do violence to the integrity of the scriptures, muddling things that differ and robbing God’s promises of their force, both in the consicence and in the heart of man.
Over the past two centuries, many Christians have come to understand and enjoy these very specific prophecies through the lens of what has been called “dispensationalism”, which sees God administering his purposes on earth in different ways, using different men (and even angels), during rather distinct time periods. Dispensational teachers largely embrace the prophecy of future animal sacrifices being offered, but have often been less than certain of their meaning and importance.
Those sacrifices are usually viewed as memorials of the work of Christ on the cross, which work will bring forgiveness of sins and assurance of it to each child of Israel in that future scene of earthly kingdom glory. No doubt there will be an aspect of remembrance in their worship, but I believe this explanation doesn’t go far enough to explain what those sacrifices will entail in their meaning to Jehovah and His people. Dispensational teacher and Bible scholar John C. Whitcomb provides some help with this question in an article originally published in 1985. His broad point is that those future sacrifices will have an instructional, disciplinary, and ceremonial purpose. I will quote from that paper briefly, but recommend for the Bible student a reading of the entire piece at the link provided below.²
In the covenant at Sinai, God provided a highly complex and rigid structure for his “kingdom of priests.” Within that structure, national / theocratic transgressions would receive national / theocratic forgiveness when appropriate sacrifices were offered to God through legitimate priests at the tabernacle / temple altar. This “forgiveness” was promised regardless of the spiritual state of either the offerer or the priest. For example, for both believing and unbelieving Israelites in Egypt, God promised: “when I see the blood I will pass over you” (Exod. 12:13; cf. 12:23). However, such sacrificial blood could never cleanse the conscience or save the soul (Heb. 10:1–2), so God repeatedly sent prophets to call His people to love and obey their God from the heart. Apart from such genuine faith, all the ceremonially “kosher” animals in the whole world would avail nothing in the spiritual realm . . .
It was just as true then as it is today: “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). But it was also true then, under the Old Covenant, that “the blood of goats and bulls . . . sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). In the words of F. F. Bruce,
the blood of slaughtered animals under the old order did possess a certain
efficacy, but it was an outward efficacy for the removal of ceremonial
pollution. . . . They could restore [the worshipper] to formal communion
with God and with his fellow-worshippers. . . . Just how the blood of
sacrificed animals or the ashes of a red heifer effected a ceremonial
cleansing our author does not explain; it was sufficient for him, and no
doubt for his readers, that the Old Testament ascribed this efficacy to
Now what does all of this indicate with regard to animal sacrifices in the millennial Temple for Israel under the New Covenant? It indicates that future sacrifices will have nothing to do with eternal salvation which only comes through true faith in God. It also indicates that future animal sacrifices will be “efficacious” and “expiatory” only in terms of the strict provision for ceremonial (and thus temporal) forgiveness within the theocracy of Israel. Thus, animal sacrifices during the coming Kingdom age will not be primarily memorial, like the bread and the cup . . . any more than sacrifices in the age of the Old Covenant were primarily prospective or prophetic in the understanding of the offerer.
Then, after quoting many other Bible scholars, such as Walvoord, Gaebelein, and Kelly on both the similarities and the contrasts between old covenant and new covenant worship, Whitcomb concludes:
It is not only possible, but prophetically certain, that millennial animal sacrifices will be used in a God-honoring way (e.g., Psa. 51:15–19; Heb. 11:4) by a regenerated, chosen nation before the inauguration of the eternal state when animals will presumably no longer exist.
Before the heavens and the earth flee away from him who sits upon the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11), God will provide a final demonstration of the validity of animal sacrifices as an instructional and disciplinary instrument for Israel. The entire world will see the true purpose of this system. Of course, the system never has and never will function on the level of Calvary’s Cross, where infinite and eternal guilt was dealt with once and for all. But the system did accomplish, under God, some very important pedagogical and disciplinary purposes for Israel under the Old Covenant (Gal. 4:1–7). There is good reason to believe that it will yet again, and far more successfully from a pedagogical (instructional) standpoint, function on the level of purely temporal cleansing and forgiveness (cf. Heb. 9:13) within the strict limits of the national theocracy of Israel during the one thousand years of Christ’s reign upon the earth in accordance with the terms of the New Covenant.
The Christian can enjoy a place of intimacy with Christ and in Him, with no need for animal sacrifice and offering in a covenantal relationship, while at the same time marvelling at the wisdom of God in His dispensational ways with man, and with His elect, through the ages.
¹ Ezekiel 40:38-43; 42:13-14; 43:18-26; 44:15-31; 45:13-25; 46:1-24
² “Christ’s Atonement and Animal Sacrifices in Israel”, by John C. Whitcomb. Link to article here. (Note: While we might take issue with terminology in this article giving the appearance the author believes the church is under the New Covenant, I believe he only means to convey that we enjoy New Covenant blessings by grace. A few minor errors should be borne with as well.)