TEXT: Ezekiel 36:22-37:14 (ESV)
SPEAKER: Josh Hanson
It’s good to be with all of you this weekend at Gateway Church. And one thing I want you to know — and it doesn’t matter if it’s your first time with us or if you’re worshipping at our North Main campus — one thing I want you to know is that God loves you and I love you too.
And if you’re just joining us, we’re in the fourth week of a series where we’re looking at some books of the Bible that may be less familiar to you than others. We’re looking at the Old Testament prophets.
Now I can imagine someone thinking, “What in the world do the Old Testament prophets have to do with my life? Give me a sermon on relationships or money or parenting...but the Old Testament prophets — this seems so impractical.” And here’s what I hope we’ll all realize. We — if you’re a believer in Jesus — we stand in a long line of people who’ve gone before us in church history. And they’re part of God’s story — and so are you. And their God is your God. The God of Abraham and Isaac, the God of Jacob and Moses, the God of David and Isaiah, the God of Jeremiah and Ezekiel — is your God. And the God who spoke to them thousands of years ago is the same God who speaks to you today in the Bible. And what unites us together is that we’re all part of the same story — God’s story — a story with Jesus at the center. And these Old Testament prophets have much to teach us about Jesus and the story we’re part of.
So that’s why we’re spending five weeks in the Old Testament prophets. We’re looking at them and seeing how their story points us to the bigger story the Bible is telling — the story of Jesus. And today we’re continuing our series in the Old Testament prophets by taking a look at the book of Ezekiel. So if you have your Bible — and I hope you’ve brought one with you today — go ahead and open it to Ezekiel chapter 36. We’ll begin in verse 22.
And, if you’re a guest with us, something we like to do at Gateway is let you ask questions. So if you have a question during the sermon, you can text your question in to the number printed on the bulletin or you can submit it on the Gateway app.
OVERVIEW OF EZEKIEL
And while you’re finding Ezekiel 36, let me give you a quick overview of the book of Ezekiel. The book is written by a prophet named...Ezekiel. And he lived during the same time period as the prophet Jeremiah. But unlike Jeremiah — who stayed mainly in and around the city of Jerusalem — Ezekiel is in exile. When the Babylonians invaded the nation of Judah they exiled the king of Judah and around 3,000 of the nation’s leading citizens — Ezekiel being one of them. And in the opening verses of chapter 1, Ezekiel tells us that he’s in exile living in — what today is — the country of Iraq. Something obvious is that he’s familiar with Jeremiah’s new covenant message — what we looked at a few weeks ago — but we don’t know if the two prophets ever met.
Like the prophet Isaiah, we know that Ezekiel was married. And he writes about his wife’s death in the 24th chapter of his book. His name — Ezekiel — means “God strengthens” or “may God strengthen,” which is appropriate for a prophet in exile and in constant need of God’s strength for survival. He was about 25 years old when he was sent into exile and in his book he speaks on a number of themes, but the central theme is the holiness of God, which the people of Judah have dishonored.
If you remember back to the first week in this series, we looked at the calling of Isaiah. Where the prophet had a vision of God. And what were the angels crying out in Isaiah’s vision? They were crying out “holy, holy, holy.” Isaiah goes on to warn the people about dishonoring God’s holiness — but they ignore his warning. And now — over a hundred years later — the people are still dishonoring the holiness of God — even after being sent into exile. But now the nations are watching — foreigners are seeing God’s people dishonor His holiness — God’s people are being terrible witnesses to the watching world.
And just as Isaiah prophesied, God’s judgement comes. They’re punished because they’ve abandoned God. Jeremiah experienced God’s judgment from within the city of Jerusalem. Ezekiel — however — experiences God’s judgment in exile. He’s out in the land of darkness that the people were warned about. He’s out in the wilderness — out in the land of despair — out in the land of death. And the question this book raises is this: “Will the people be brought out of the land of death and back to the Promised Land — the land of life — will they experience a resurrection?”
I’m sure you’re familiar with the rescue of the soccer team in Thailand that happened last month. The team had a tradition of taking new members deep into a large cave system to write their name on a cave wall.
The team entered the cave for what was supposed to be an hour-long trip, but ended up in the cave for more than two weeks as a flash-flood trapped them. They were able to find a small dry beach which would be their home for two weeks — but — at the time — they had no idea if it would be their grave.
Now two things. Were they alive on that beach in the cave? Yes — they were alive. But were they dead? Yes — without a rescue — that cave is their grave. They don’t know if help’s on the way. They don’t know the world’s watching and rescuers are working to get to them. All they know is they’re in exile — in a place of darkness — a place of despair — they’re in a place of death.
Now — we should celebrate the good work the rescuers did to bring the soccer team up out of the cave — up out of the grave — up out of that place of darkness, despair, and death. It’s stories like these that emphasize a goodness in mankind. If you ask a person on the street, “Are most people good,” they’ll probably say, “Yes.” It’s a common assumption that — while there are bad people in the world — most people are good. There’s even a country song titled “I Believe Most People are Good.” The chorus says, “I believe most people are good...I believe the world ain’t half as bad as it looks; I believe most people are good.” And many people would agree.
And let me say — maybe to your surprise — that the Bible agrees — but it makes an important clarification. There is an inherent measure of goodness in people because all people are made in the image of God. Men and women do good things — like rescuing a soccer team out of a flooded cave.
But what the Bible clarifies is that though men and women — being made in the image of God — can do good things — because of sin — all people are totally depraved. You see, the Bible’s more honest about us than we are.
Can we do good things? “Yes!” But are we depraved? The Bible says, “Yes again!”
So what does that mean — to be totally depraved? It means that though man is not as bad as he could possibly be — sin — not goodness — controls our hearts apart from God. So even though people do good things — the gospel disagrees with Luke Bryan — who wrote the song I quoted from earlier — for the Bible says “being good isn’t based on what you do — being good has to do with your heart. And apart from God — it’s not that your heart isn’t good — or even that it’s bad — apart from God a person’s heart is dead.” The opposite of a good heart — according to the Bible — isn’t a bad heart — it’s a dead heart. How about that for a shocker?
And this is why the Bible can be very irritating. Culture says that our hearts are basically good — not bad — and especially not dead — so the idea of resurrection seems silly to many. “Why would I need to be resurrected? I’m not dead.” But the Bible says because of the sin that lives within each of us — our hearts — apart from Christ — are spiritually dead — thus we all need a spiritual resurrection.
Which leads us to our passage in Ezekiel. Here are the words found in Ezekiel 36. Beginning in verse twenty-two.
“"Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. (So right away we’re confronted with something that goes against everything we think about ourselves — that part of us that's so certain — even if we don’t say it out loud — that part of us that thinks, “I. Am. Awesome.” Because you’re not — and neither am I. God says, “I’m not doing this for you; I’m doing this for the sake of My holy name — which — by the way — you’ve dishonored.”) 23 And (this is God speaking) I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (So get this. God’s goal is that the nations will see His holiness through the work He’s doing in us. God is always global-focused. We get caught up in our own little worlds — not God. He’s not satisfied with just you believing in Him. He’s not satisfied with the United States being a Christian nation — whatever that means. God has a heart for people of all nations — and that’s why He’s saved you — if you believe in Jesus. God’s saved you so you will show His holiness to the nations. How does your life show the nations the holiness of God? God continues...) 24 I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. (God kicked them out of the Promised Land and He’ll bring them back in — God’s going to make it happen. The Jews aren’t going to revolt. They’re not going to sneak away or fight their way out of exile. It’s God — and God alone — who will take them out of exile and bring them back into the Promised Land. God says...) 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. (Remember how the people had abandoned worshipping only God? They’d started mixing in other religions. They’d traded in the pure, unadulterated worship of God for a “choose your own religion” deal — and this made them filthy to God. Their worship disgusted Him. It made them unclean. But notice how gracious God is. For He makes them clean anyway. They don’t make themselves clean — God does it for them. And God says...) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh (that’s the old heart — a stone — spiritually dead — heart) and give you a heart of flesh (a heart that’s spiritually alive). 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Notice who’s doing all of the work. God is, right? He’s giving the new heart. He’s giving His Spirit. He’s doing all of it — we’re the recipients — we’re the ones being acted upon. God says, “I’ll give you a new heart, put a new spirit in you. I’ll remove the stone heart from your body and replace it with a heart that’s God-willed, not self-willed. I’ll put my Spirit in you and make it possible for you to do what I tell you and live by my commands.”
A great question to ask yourself is this: Is my heart God-willed or self-willed? Which way does your heart lean? Towards signs of being spiritually dead or alive?
The people aren’t going to be asked whether or not they want a new heart. God’s not going to give them the option to accept or reject His Spirit. He knows how wicked, and rebellious, and stone-hearted these people are. And if He gives them the option they’ll never accept Him or His Spirit — that’s what we’ve been seeing in the Old Testament prophets — left on our own, every one of us goes our own way. We all reject God. We all check the box “Do not accept these terms and conditions. No new heart. No Holy Spirit. No resurrection.” Left on our own we all reject God — we choose death, not life — but thankfully He doesn’t leave us on our own.
God goes on to say — and this is really off the charts gracious of God — if you really get just who these people are — who we are — for God says to them...) 28 You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (There’s the new covenant promise we saw in Jeremiah. God refuses to break His promise — remember He’s a promise-making and a promise-keeping God — and He’s promised them the Promised Land and even though they don’t deserve it — He gives it to them anyway. That’s grace! God says...) 29 And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. 30 I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations. (There’s coming a time of fruitfulness and prosperity and abundance and life. War and invasion and exile will be over. The people will be made clean.) 31 Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. (When you begin to understand how gracious God has been to you — you hate your sin — but the opposite is also true. If God’s grace is cheap to you — if it’s not worth much — you don’t hate your sin. You may hate the consequences of your sin — you may be irritated with the results of your sin — but you don’t hate your sin. And — listen — with all of the love I have for you — let me tell you — you either hate God or hate your sin — there isn’t another option. Do you hate your sin?)
32 It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord God; let that be known to you. (Could God be any clearer? God’s not doing this because the people deserve it. A more frank translation says, “I’m not doing this for you. Get this through your thick heads! Shame on you. What a mess you made of things, Israel!”
God tells them to...) Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Hate your sin!) 33 "Thus says the Lord God: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. 34 And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. 35 And they will say, 'This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.' (There’s a complete transformation from death and destruction to life and flourishing. A city destroyed is now prosperous. And the result?) 36 Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the Lord; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it. (The promise-maker is the promise-keeper — this will be done. Guaranteed.) 37 "Thus says the Lord God: This also I will let the house of Israel ask me to do for them: to increase their people like a flock. 38 Like the flock for sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem during her appointed feasts, so shall the waste cities be filled with flocks of people. Then they will know that I am the Lord."
God’s doing it all. How many times have we read, “I will” and “I am” referring to God? God’s cleansing them of their iniquities — of their sin. He’s giving them His Spirit — so they will have life. He’s giving them a new heart — so they will desire and obey Him. God’s making a point. And just in case they’re not getting it — in case we’re not getting it — God gives Ezekiel an illustration — a vision — a visual so we understand just how desperate we are in need of God to do this resurrection work in and for us. Let’s continue in chapter 37.
1 The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. (In a time of war and invasion, not everyone gets a proper burial. And in this vision, there’s a valley where a slaughter has taken place and the corpses were left on the surface of the ground — they’ve been there for awhile — there’s nothing but bones on the ground.) 2 And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. (Dry bones — they’ve been out in the sun and weather for a long time.) 3 And he (this is God speaking...He...) said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" (OK — so pause. Can bones live? Can they get up, walk around, head over to Main St. deli and order a sandwich? The answer is “No,” right? That’s how we’d answer, but that’s not how Ezekiel answers.) And I answered, "O Lord God, you know." (When God asks you a question that you’re certain you know the answer to — sometimes the best reply is — “God, why don’t you tell me the answer.”) 4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. (“Preach Ezekiel, preach to these dead, dry, lifeless bones! Preach My Word to them.”
What’s the craziest thing God’s asked you to do — wasn’t this crazy was it? Since it wasn’t this crazy, did you obey? Whenever God asks you to do something that you think is crazy, I want you to think of this moment in Ezekiel’s life — maybe go drive to a cemetery and stand over a grave — and say, “OK God. I’ll do what You’ve asked. Because what You’re asking me to do ain’t “Preach to dry bones crazy.”) 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord." (“Preach to these bones Ezekiel. Because through your preaching of My Word these bones will experience a resurrection.” I mean, how stupid does this sound? “Ezekiel go preach to a bunch of bones and tell them to listen to the Word of God — tell them to live — tell these dry bones to know that I am God.” It all sounds ridiculous, right? Hold onto that thought, because it’s going to crush your pride in a moment.) 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them. (So through Ezekiel’s preaching something incredible happens. A resurrection takes place. But notice that there’s no breath. They’re physically all put together — but there’s no breath — there’s no life in them.) 9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live." 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Now we’ve got a resurrection! This army was dead — but now they’re alive. So God explains the vision.) 11 Then he said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.' 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord." (The promise-making God is a promise-keeping God.)” (Ezekiel 36:22-37:14 ESV)
The people are in exile. They’re physically alive, but — the picture you need to see is that though they’re alive — they’re dead. Those boys in the cave were alive. They could talk to each other. They could move around on the beach. They were perfectly free — nothing was imposed upon their free will — they could’ve tried to swim out of the cave on their own — but they chose to stay put. But can you see that though they were alive — without outside help — without a rescue — without a resurrection — they literally needed to come up out of the grave — without a resurrection they’re dead?
That’s the picture in Ezekiel. Ezekiel shows us — not just the state of the people in exile — Ezekiel shows us the spiritual condition of everyone who doesn’t have faith in Christ. You’re not trapped in a cave — you’re trapped in a sinful — totally depraved — body. And it’s your place of exile — it’s your place of darkness — it’s your place of death — unless you experience a resurrection.
So how do we experience this resurrection? Ready for that crushing of your pride I promised? Through what seems like the dumbest thing ever — through preaching. Spiritual resurrection comes through God’s Word being preached and proclaimed.
When I stand up here — while you’re watching the video or finding your Bible — whatever it is you do before I preach — do you know what I’m doing? I’m praying. I’m praying through Ezekiel’s vision. I hear God ask, “Josh can these dry bones live? Can these people — many of whom who are spiritually dead — who do all sorts of good things and think those good things make them right with Me — can these people — Josh — can they live?” And I always reply, “God, only You know. But I’m going to preach as faithfully as I can so Your Spirit will give new hearts and new life to all that You choose.”
Every week, as I prepare my sermon, I pray that the miraculous would happen while I preach — that people who come here spiritually dead — thinking that because they’ve got bones, and skin, and are able to move, and think, and do all sorts of things that make them think they’re alive — I pray that you — if that’s you — that you would experience a resurrection — that you would be given a new heart — as God’s Word is preached.
FINDING JESUS IN EZEKIEL
And this theme of resurrection is a way we find Jesus in the whole Bible. A man named Abraham is told by God to kill his one and only son — it was a test of Abraham’s faith. And as he prepared to strike his son with a knife God calls out for him to stop. And it’s said, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, 18 of whom it was said, "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." 19 He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:17-19 ESV)
A foreigner named Naaman had leprosy — which was a death sentence — and he went to a prophet to be healed. He was told to go wash in the Jordan River — dip down into the same water that one day Jesus would be baptized in. And when he came up out of the water he was healed — he was resurrected.
We read stories in the Old and New Testaments of widows receiving their children back from the dead. Jesus stands at the tomb of his friend — who’d been dead for several days — and commands his deceased friend to live — and the guy walks out of the tomb — alive.
And all of these resurrection stories point us to the resurrection story — the resurrection of Jesus. That though He was killed on a cross, three days later the tomb was empty — for death could not keep Him in the grave. As the angels told the women, “Why are you looking for Him here. He’s not dead; He’s alive.”
And these resurrection stories also reveal to us something troubling about ourselves. That though we may be physically alive — breathing, talking, going to work, enjoying hobbies, and doing good things — that without Christ we’re all spiritually dead because of our sin.
Speaking to followers of Jesus, Paul writes, “And you were (what? Paul says you were...) dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked (notice — they were physically alive — they we’re walking around...), following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like (who? So who’s included in the “you’re physically alive, but spiritually dead” condition? Like...) the rest of mankind. (That’s everyone — including you — if you don’t believe. And that would be a hopeless, dark, and depressing situation if it wasn’t for Paul’s next two words. Two of my favorite words in all of Scripture.) 4 But God (The promise-making God is a promise-keeping God. And He’s promised not to leave us in darkness, despair, and death — He will not leave His people in spiritual exile. But God...), being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were (here it is again...) dead in our trespasses, (When we were spiritually dead, what did God do? He...) made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6 and (God) raised us up with him (What is that? That’s resurrection. God raised us up from the dead...) and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:1-7 ESV)
We find in Ezekiel what we find in the whole Bible. As much as we want to be the diver who comes up out of the water to rescue a trapped soccer team — that’s not who we are in God’s story. We’re on the soccer team. We’re the ones trapped in a land of darkness — spiritual darkness. We’re all caught in a cave of eternal death. We may be breathing. We may be physically alive. We may be doing all kinds of good things. But we’re trapped on a beach in a cave of death — spiritually dead — in need of a rescue — in need of a resurrection.
And Jesus is the Rescuer. He’s the diver who went into the cave of death to rescue us. He’s made our resurrection possible by defeating death on our behalf on the cross. Jesus is the One who brings us up out of the grave and gives us eternal life.
“Jesus, Can these dry bones live — can they be resurrected?” “Yes,” He says. “Live,” Jesus says. “Be resurrected,’ He says. “Yes, they can live — because I have given My life for them.” Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, give life to these dry bones. Give us eyes to see the spiritual darkness and death we’re trapped in unless we’re given the life You’ve made possible. Life through the resurrection of Your Son, Jesus. Thank you for sending Your Holy Spirit to give us new life so we can step out of the darkness of spiritual death and into the light of eternal life with new hearts that seek to obey You. And Father, help all of us — who’ve received the amazing gift of resurrection — help us to know that a dead world is watching. They’re looking to us to see Your holiness — to see Your resurrection power. Help us to not dishonor Your holy name, but to live the resurrected life You’ve made possible so others might be given this life too. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.