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Death Valley

Series: Gospel Pattern: Old Testament Stories & The Grace of God

Sermon by Kevin Phipps on Jul 23, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14

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For our Bible study portion tonight we are continuing our summer series on Wednesday nights called “Gospel Pattern:  Old Testament Stories and the Grace of God.”  And we continue the series tonight by diving into one of the more well-known sections of Ezekiel, Ezekiel chapter 37.  So if you have your Bible you can go ahead and turn there or you can look on the back of the worship guide tonight for the passage. 

Now this is a little different for this series. This is actually the first portion of Scripture from the prophets that we’re looking in this “Gospel Pattern” series.  Ezekiel was a prophet during the exile.  Remember that God’s people have been taken to Babylon as part of God’s judgment against their sins.  The entire book of Ezekiel is a collection of different prophecies.  The first part of the book is the oracles of judgment against God’s people.  Then there’s oracles of judgment against the nations.  And then the third to the end section of the book of Ezekiel there’s a transition where the prophet begins to proclaim restoration to God’s people in exile.  And that’s where our passage is tonight in Ezekiel 37. 

Ezekiel 37 and the Doctrine of Effectual Calling

Now we just sang the hymn, “How Sweet and Awesome is the Place,” and in that third stanza I want to call your attention to now.  It says, “Why was I made to hear your voice and enter while there’s room, when thousands make a wretched choice and rather starve than come?”  Isaac Watts is making us think about the doctrine of election.  He’s asking, “Why was I chosen to be one of Yours, God?”  But that third stanza also points us to another doctrine.  It points us to the doctrine of effectual calling.  The beginning of that stanza says, “Why was I made to hear Your voice?”  Our confession, Westminster Confession chapter 10 says, and I paraphrase slightly, if that’s allowed - “All those whom God had predestined unto eternal life He effectually calls by His Word and Spirit out of a state of sin and death and into a state of grace and salvation by Jesus Christ.”

This passage in Ezekiel 37 there’s a number of Christian doctrines we could highlight.  Tonight I want to call our attention to effectual calling because in this passage we see the power of God’s Word and Spirit to bring from death to life.  This passage illustrates effectual calling in like high definition for us.  So I just want to prepare us as we’re going to read God’s Word to be on the lookout for that.  And not just to learn about effectual calling just for the sake of knowing more about Christian doctrine but I hope that our look at Ezekiel 37 and what we learn here tonight would spur us on in sharing the good news of the Gospel and would spur us on in personal evangelism, and it would encourage us in mission and in outreach.

Before we read God’s Word let’s pray.

Our Heavenly Father, we thank You that You have called us out of darkness into light.  We thank You that You have called us out of death into new life in Your Son.  We pray that Your Word tonight would go deep in our hearts, it would bear fruit, Lord that we would not only be hearers but doers as well.  We ask that by Your Spirit You would enlighten our minds to hear and understand and apply Your Word.  And it’s on Your Spirit’s power and guidance that we rest, in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Hear God’s Word from Ezekiel chapter 37 the first fourteen verses:

“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.  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.  And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’  Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  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.’

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.  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.  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.’ 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.

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.’  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.  And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.  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.’”

Amen, and that ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant Word.  May He write its eternal truth on all our hearts.

The Problem of Death and the God of Restoring-Life

Growing up I had a great privilege of having a very close relationship with my great-grandmother on my dad’s side.  Her name was Mawmaw Gladys.  She was from Opelousas, Louisiana.  She lived seventy-one years in New Orleans.  The last three years of her life she moved to Savannah.  In 2003 we knew that it was coming close to time for Mawmaw Gladys to die and we began to prepare ourselves for the news.  And in September of 2003 she died.  And she lived a full life; by all accounts she was ready to go.  And as we prepared ourselves death didn’t seem that tragic.  But what I wasn’t prepared for was when we went to bury Mawmaw and we walked up to the family site and there was the memorial plaque for my younger sister who died a decade earlier.  And I was reminded that death is not okay.  Death is not okay. 

That’s the scene we arrive on here in Ezekiel 37.  It’s a tragic scene.  It’s a vision of a mass grave.  We need to be reminded that as Christians the Gospel does not make peace with death.  Actually it’s the opposite.  The Gospel makes war with death and that our Savior conquered the grave.  Christians, we are not to think of death as being just natural or part of the circle of life.  Remember that Paul calls it the last enemy.  So when we face our own death or the death of a believer we have hope because of the Gospel but we should never really be okay with death.  And what’s the reason why we can’t be okay with death?  Because death is a result of sin; it’s a consequence of disobedience.  It’s part of the curse.  When Adam and Eve sinned death entered the world. Death’s first manifestation was spiritual and then eventually it manifested itself physically in their physical death.  So we begin with death because that’s what we’re immediately confronted with - a picture of the effects of sin; a vision of bare bones.  But in chapter 37 we have a clear illustration of how our God conquers death or how our God promises restoration, how our God promises that death will not have the last note. 

So in this promise of restoration to the Israelites in exile, we see a pattern of how God saves sinners and it points us to the ultimate hope - our one day final resurrection.  So three things as we think about this passage tonight; three lessons.  First - a description of fallen humanity.  The second thing - the God who is able to overcome death.  And the third thing - the means by which God overcomes death. 

I. A Description of Fallen Humanity

The first thing - a description of fallen humanity.  In verses 1 and 2, Ezekiel’s brought to an unmarked grave.  It’s not really a grave; it’s an open area with skeletal remains that have been picked clean by wild animals and bleached by the hot sun.  Now in the ancient world, not receiving a proper burial was a sign that you were cursed.  Leaving a body exposed was something that you did to enemies and the worst of criminals.  The Israelites were warned in Deuteronomy 28 that if they were disobedient they would be routed by their enemies and that their bodies would be food for the birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth.  There’s a similar warning in Jeremiah chapter 34.  In verse 11 of our passage the Lord tells Ezekiel, “These bones that you see, they’re the whole house of Israel.”  The people are in exile because of their disobedience, they are removed from the Promised Land, and in verse 11, they themselves declare themselves to be cut off.  They say, “We are cut off.  There is no hope for us.”  Cut off in Scripture is covenantal language.  The people recognize that they are guilty of violating the terms of God’s covenant with them and they are under His righteous condemnation.  They are cut off from their covenantal God.

Now the vision of the valley of dry bones is the spiritual condition of the exiles.  They are separated from fellowship with their covenant Lord; they are spiritually dead.  This vivid picture of dry bones cut off from God is not just a picture of ancient Israel but it is an image of what it’s like to be cut off from God because of sin. See, what plays out in the history of Israel in the pages of Scripture is mirroring what has happened to humanity.  It mirrors the fallen-ness of the whole human race. See, the exile of the Israelites isn’t the first exile that occurs in Scripture.  The first exile that occurs in Scripture happens in Genesis chapter 3.  The end of Genesis chapter 3, our first parents, Adam and Eve, are exiled from the Garden.  They are separated from God, under the sentence of death, and all of humanity from that point on is born in a spiritually dead condition and exiled from fellowship with God.  Sinners, apart from God, are like dead bones - scattered, no flesh.  That’s the condition of those who haven’t been called by God in the Gospel.

Ephesians 2:1 says that Christians were once dead in sin.  Apart from God’s intervention we would all still be dead in our sins.  See, mankind’s real problem is not economical, it’s not political, it’s not a need of more education, it’s not a need of more technology.  Our real problem is that we are spiritually dead and our spiritual deadness is a foreshadowing of the death that is to come because of sin.  So man can work to improve his circumstances but the solution for his problem must come from outside of him. Fallen humanity can only be restored by its Creator.  So tonight we must begin with looking at a valley of bones, disjointed, picked clean, and be reminded that that is our condition in sin apart from the work of the Spirit in our life.  And we’re not supposed to be okay with this; we’re not supposed to be okay with death.  But the human condition is one that apart from God’s intervention there’s nothing we can do about it.  The reality of spiritual deadness is not a popular message.  All right?  That’s a good lead in with a friend trying to tell them about Jesus.  You know, “Hey, you know you’re spiritually dead?”  Sometimes that might be a conversation - it just ends the conversation right there.  “Thanks a lot. Let’s move on.  Let’s talk about sports or what was on TV last night or something like that.”  But the truth is that a faithful Gospel presentation has to begin with man’s true condition.  It’s a hard thing to say to someone.  But here we have a vivid picture of what life is apart from God.  We don’t offer self-help, we don’t simply offer advice, because what self-help or what advice can you give to a valley of bones?  None.  That’s the reality of the fallen condition.

II. A God Who is Able to Overcome Death

But that’s not where this passage leaves us.  It doesn’t just leave us with the description of fallen humanity.  It also shows us a God who is able to overcome death, a God who is able to overcome our fallen-ness.  In verse 3, God asks Ezekiel a question.  It’s a crazy question - “Can these bones live?”  The seemingly right answer to that absurd question would be, “Of course not!” but the prophet answers wisely.  He says, “O LORD God, you know.”  That’s a good answer.  If the bones are going to live it’s not going to be by Ezekiel’s determination but according to the sovereign will of God.  We see that there’s going to be spiritual life it’s because God willed it.  Why?  Because dead bones can’t choose to live and Ezekiel can’t will them back to life, but God has a plan. 

What does God tell Ezekiel to do in verse 4?  He says, “Prophecy to the bones.  Command them to hear the Word of the Lord.”  Now that still seems like a fool’s errand, right?  Christopher White put it like this, and I quote, “Now it is well attested anatomically, it is a fact, that although ears have many bones, bones do not have any ears.”  End quote.  But that is what God commands him to do, right?  In verses 7 to 10 we see that God is able to do the impossible.  He is able to take a valley of just scattered bones and put them back together.  Think about that scene.  I don’t think there’s really any special effects that Hollywood could come up to God’s special effects in this vision here.  But this is what God is demonstrating before Ezekiel.  He says, “This is the condition of my people and this is what I can do as their great sovereign God. And God brings them back together.  In verses 7 through 10 we see that He’s recreating them.  He does it in two stages - the bones come together and then sinew and muscles and flesh and skin comes upon them but there’s no breath.  And then in the second stage God tells Ezekiel to prophecy to the wind and tell the wind to bring breath into them.  It’s the Creator recreating His fallen creation.  Remember when God created man He first formed him out of the dust - He formed him; He brought him together - first stage.  Second stage - then He breathed life into him.  He breathed life into him.  The sovereign God is the sovereign re-creator.  And God is promising Ezekiel that He is able to restore His people what seems to be a just dire, hopeless, impossible situation.  He is able to bring life.  It’s a rerun of creation; it’s a picture of new creation.  And don’t miss it when we see the sovereignty of God on display like this.  It surely points us to His grace.

God is a God who is not okay with death.  God sent His Son as the answer to death and it was Jesus who experienced the ultimate exile.  It was Jesus who experienced forsakenness by the Father on the cross.  Jesus, who died a cursed death and rose from the dead, rose victorious over the grave.  And then in John chapter 20 we see Him walk into a locked room and He calls His disciples over.  And what does Jesus do?  Jesus breathes on them.  He breathes on them and He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus had Ezekiel 37 in the back of His mind.  He’s remembering He’s fulfilling the prophecy of the valley of the dry bones.  He’s breathing on them new life.  Jesus is God’s answer to death but He didn’t just conquer death, He’s the answer for death for all those who trust in Him.  So the God who was able to overcome death does it through His Son.

III. The Means by which God Conquers Death

And then finally we’ll look at the means by which God conquers death.  When God effectually calls sinners from death to life He uses means.  And there are two means that are very clear in this passage.  The first is the power of the Holy Spirit.  The second is the preaching of God’s Word. 

The Holy Spirit

Let’s begin with the power of the Holy Spirit in verse 5. Now throughout this passage over and over again it can get confusing.  There’s one Hebrew word that gets translated - “wind, breath, spirit.”  It’s the word, “ruach.”  And you could follow along; you can figure out what’s going on, but there’s times where breath, the word “ruach” literally means breath, there’s times when it means wind, and there’s times where it means spirit.  But what is clear is that what is happening here is that the person of the Holy Spirit is the one who brings new life.  It’s the person of the Holy Spirit who is the agent of the Trinity executing the divine plan to bring life from death and to breathe new life.  He is the breath of life. Titus chapter 3 verse 5 says this - “He saved us not because of works done in righteousness but according to His own mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” So the first way that God conquers death, applying the victory of the cross, is through the person of the Holy Spirit.

The Preaching of the Word

The second way we see in this passage very clearly is through the preaching of the Word.  In verse 4 and 7 we see that.  It’s through the preaching of the Word, that was the means by which God brought flesh and then breath into the bones that have been reassembled.  1 Peter 1:23 says that “We are born again not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding Word of God.”  It is through the Word of God that life is brought out of death. Scripture teaches us, as we have already looked at or thought about, that God breathed into man when He created man giving him life.  There’s another time in Scripture that we find out that God breathed into something.  God breathed out the Scriptures themselves 1 Timothy 3:16 tells us - that all Scripture is inspired by God; it’s the product of divine breath.  So God created man and He breathed into him and then the tool that He uses to renew man, to bring new life, to restore him to the image of God is the God-breathed Word of God. 

Application

Now being reminded of the means by which God saves sinners from death and brings them to life it prepares us for mission, it prepares us for a lifestyle of evangelism, it prepares us for a lifestyle of outreach in two ways.  One way is that it shapes our attitude.  The second way is that it directs our prayers. 

Reshaped Attitudes

The first ways it shapes our attitude is that we are reminded that we too are often like Ezekiel looking at a valley of dead bones - scattered, and completely dependent on God to bring life where there’s death.  But our dependence isn’t the only part of our attitudes - it’s that we have a confident attitude that the God of the Bible is the one who attends the preaching of His Word so our attitude towards the lost is one of complete dependence on the power of God to move, to do something in their lives, but a complete confidence in the Word of God used by the Spirit in their lives.  So it shapes our attitude.  We are dependent upon God and confident that He will do what only He can do.

Redirected Prayers

The second thing is that it directs our prayers.  We are instructed to pray that the Spirit of God would move upon lost sinners, dead in their sin.  We’re instructed to pray for the preaching of God’s Word that through the preaching of God’s Word God would call sinners from death to live.  It directs our prayers for those that we love and are dearly grieved over their fallen-ness and dearly grieved on their being far from God.  We pray for them.  In Ezekiel chapter 37 we see a pattern of how God will conquer death.  He will conquer death at the cross.  And right now, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead effectively calls those who are dead in sin to new life in Christ.  Spiritual deadness is replaced by new life.  You see that is not all.  It’s not just that spiritual deadness is not okay with God; it’s physical death that’s not okay with God.  And those who have been given new life in Christ are waiting for the day for the final resurrection where believers will be raised by the same Spirit and no longer subject to physical death because in union with Christ we can be confident and sure that one day we will experience the fullness of His victory over the grave.  You were once dead in your sins, but God, but God in His great mercy raised us with Christ.

Let us pray.

Our God, we thank You for the power of Your Word preached.  We thank You that it’s attended by Your Spirit.  We ask that You would send Your victorious Word abroad and that You would bring strangers home because we long, Lord, to see, Lord, this church and other churches full, Lord, Lord that we may sing with one voice and heart and soul that we may sing of Your redeeming grace.  Lord help us to pray now, in Jesus’ name, amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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