Freedom from Death to Life (May 20, 2018)
Freedom from Death to Life
The Israelites were longing for freedom. They were deported from their homeland, and living in captivity under the Babylonians. Yet they held on to God’s promises of deliverance and restoration. As Jeremiah ministered to the remaining inhabitants of Judah, warning them of their impending destruction, Ezekiel was God’s prophet for those who were deported and taken into captivity. In a foreign and strange land, they held on to God’s promises. They looked forward to the day that they would return to Judah and find Jerusalem still standing.
But that was not the case. You see, their physical enslavement under the Babylonians was not the enslavement that God was promising deliverance from – not primarily, at least. Jerusalem would be destroyed. Judah would be scattered. Some of the Israelites would indeed return, but not to the preserved remnant as they had imagined. That’s because there was a different kind of enslavement that God wanted them to become aware of. It was their spiritual enslavement to sin and rebellion against God.
To help them identify this enslavement, God caused Ezekiel to see a very chilling scene. “The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones” (Eze 37:1). There’s two things that God wanted Ezekiel to realize about these bones as God walked him back and forth through the valley. These bones were very dry, and there were very many. You may have seen bones lying on the ground from time to time. Bones of roadkill or bones of and animal that fell victim to a predator. And I bet that any time you’ve seen bones lying on the ground, you’ve never once thought, “Oh, I hope that critter will be ok!” It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. There’s no way that anything would be ok, would come back to life, once it’s been reduced to a pile of bones. And these bones that Ezekiel saw weren’t even fresh bones. They were very dry bones. These people have been dead for a long, long time.
And yet, God asks the ridiculous. God asks the impossible question, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (Eze 37:3). Impossible for any man to bring about. God emphasizes that by calling Ezekiel a “son of man.” But is it impossible for God? Ezekiel gives what seems to be a cryptic answer. Actually, it doesn’t seem to be much of an answer at all. “Sovereign Lord, you alone know” (Eze 37:3). But there’s more to his response than we might at first see, and it’s all in how he addresses God. “Adonai Elohim” he calls him. It’s a piling up of divine names for God which emphasize both his grace and his power. In other words, Ezekiel knew that if God in his mercy decreed it, his power would give life to these dry bones. Yet, Ezekiel didn’t anticipate just how God would make this miracle a reality.
“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord” that is, “Adonai Elohim” “says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life” (Eze 37:5-6). By his word, put in the mouth of this “son of man” would God bring these dry, lifeless bones to life. In his vision, Ezekiel prophesied as God commanded. And as God’s word was being spoken through the mouth of Ezekiel, something began to happen. There was a rattling noise as the dry bones began to find their places amidst all the other dry bones. And when they were all in place, tendons fastened them together, the bones were fleshed out and covered with skin! Suddenly, there was a vast army of living and breathing people… Only, they weren’t breathing. They weren’t living either. What happened? Did Ezekiel do something wrong? Was God not powerful enough to bring these dry bones back to life?
Not at all. Rather, God divided this miraculous work into two parts to emphasize how powerless these dry bones were to bring themselves back to life. And to emphasize how powerless this son of man was to bring these dry bones back to life. And to emphasize that this depends completely upon God’s power and his grace. Notice, when God is first telling Ezekiel to prophesy he says, “Hear the word of the Lord!” “I will make breath enter you” “I will attach tendons… and make flesh” “I will put breath in you” (Eze 37:5-6). He was emphasizing that this is something that only God could do. And Ezekiel showed that he understood this by calling him “Adonai Elohim.” In fact, this whole vision is quite similar to the way that God created man in the first place. There were no dry bones for him to start with, but he did his work in two parts: forming Adam’s body first, and then breathing life into it.
So, what’s the deal here? Why is God even giving Ezekiel this rather graphic image? Well, he tells him in verse 11, “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’” (Eze 37:11). What they had concluded about themselves was correct. They were dried up, hopeless, and cut off. Even though these Israelites were very much alive in the physical sense, they were spiritually dead. Their deportation and soon destruction of Jerusalem seemed to seal their lifeless fate. But the enslavement they needed to be worried about is not their enslavement under the Babylonians, but their enslavement to spiritual death which meant their separation not from a physical Promised Land, but from the Promised Land of heaven – the home of God’s true children, spiritual Israel. So the Israelites living in Babylon needed to find freedom from spiritual death to life. And God was telling his people the only way this could be done. The only way that this vast nation of dry bones could find freedom from spiritual death to life was the Sovereign Lord, Adonai Elohim, working through his word. “Therefore prophesy… to them” (Eze 37:12).
“My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live” (Eze 37:12-14). Ezekiel prophesied, yet, when Israel finally did return to the Promised Land, there was no general resurrection from the dead. Not even all those who were alive returned home to Palestine. So it’s clear that we are not dealing here with a physical resurrection from the dead, or even strictly Israel’s return from captivity. Rather, we are talking about a new Israel – a spiritual Israel. We are talking about the new spiritual life provided by the Spirit through his word. We are talking about a spiritual resurrection and a spiritual freedom.
And the important thing, not to lose sight of here is what caused this resurrection. What was it that caused the dry lifeless bones of the Israelites to survive through captivity – to live and thrive despite being cut off from their homeland? It wasn’t their physical lineage traced back to Moses and Abraham. It wasn’t their careful preservation of Israelite culture and rituals. It was God’s Word. It was the Holy Spirit who works through the word to preserve faith in God’s promise – to preserve true spiritual life.
Fast forward several hundred years. What was it that brought 3000 people to faith on that first Christian Pentecost? It wasn’t the miraculous signs of fire, wind, or speaking in other languages. It wasn’t even Peter’s charisma or persuasion as he spoke. It was the Holy Spirit working through his word that brought so many to spiritual life through faith.
Fast forward a couple thousand years. At the beginning of this service, we confessed how he have been like dry, lifeless bones, unable to do anything to free ourselves from this dead, sinful condition. But God’s Word has been spoken, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rm 8:1-2). You are no longer dry, lifeless bones. You are alive with Christ! The Spirit of God has breathed new life into you! You are free.
You and I are fortunate to live in a country that stands for freedom. You and I have never known the kind of slavery that the Israelites knew under the Babylonian oppression. And yet, here we are, still talking about freedom. Because, I think you realize that there is much more than just physical freedom – more than just living in a land of certain unalienable rights. We still feel the enslavement of death loom over us from time to time. We still feel the powerful weight of the spiritual death that at one time ruled over us – making us like dry bones with no hope of living. “Can these bones live?” (Eze 37:3). Is it possible for a person to find freedom from the life-sapping clutches of spiritual death? “Sovereign Lord, you alone know” (Eze 37:3). In other words, “Sovereign Lord, only you can.” It is God alone who brings freedom from death to life. He does it by the Holy Spirit working through his word. Something no less miraculous than a valley of very dry bones coming back to life. And the amazing part is, he not only works this miracle in you, he also works it through you as you share God’s word with others.