Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Age of the Spirit per Ezekiel 36:16–32

One of the things that I believe we often lack as Christians is an understanding of the bigger picture. In my experience teaching the Old Testament at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney for 8½ years (until my employment finished there in 2010), I was often struck by the way in which students would come to college knowing many of the details of various stories of the Old Testament, but not understanding with some degree of clarity the bigger picture of the Old Testament. This is understandable to some extent, given the size of the Old Testament—it’s a big collection of books—but it is in understanding something of this bigger picture that we come to understand the Bible with greater clarity, and to experience the power of the word of God to a greater degree.

Why did God create the world? Why has he structured history in the way that he has? Why spend 2,000 years of human history focusing only on one relatively small nation in an obscure part of the Middle East? What was the purpose of God’s election of Israel, and what is the point of the Old Testament? It’s important that we ask these questions, because doing so will lead us to a greater reflection on, and understanding of, the word of God.

The story of Israel in the Old Testament is a detailed description, written out on the pages of human history, of what happens to human society when God’s word is not in the heart of human individuals and human society. Without the word of God, human society reverts to the default position of Gen 1:2. Back then the earth was formless (chaotic), empty (without life), and full of darkness; yet the Spirit of God was present. Unleashing the power of his word and Spirit, God said, “Let there be light”! Through the word of God, darkness was turned into light, chaos was transformed into order, and emptiness was overcome as God created living creatures to inhabit and fill his world. Always the Teacher, even the way in which God created the world was a lesson designed to teach humanity that the word of God brings light and life and order; and that without the word of God, the world will be plunged into disorder and death and darkness.

This is something that Moses, the founder of Israel, understood. After proclaiming the word of God in his final address to Israel, Moses stood before the assembly of the people of Israel, calling upon them, pleading with them: “See, I have set before you today, life and good, death and evil … Choose life” by following God’s word (Deut 30:15, 19).

Yet what did Israel choose? Did Israel choose the word of God? The Old Testament stands as a historical record of the fact that Israel chose the way of the world around them rather than the word of the Creator of the universe. Created to experience God’s blessing, Israel ended up experiencing the curses of the covenant: darkness, death, and disorder.

The problem of sin, and the effects of this, is reflected in Ezek 36:17–19. Israel through their rebellion (especially the sins of idolatry and bloodshed) defiled the land given to them by God. God’s wrath came upon them, and they were scattered and dispersed among the nations.

Ignoring God, and chasing after idols, Israel deserved this punishment; yet judgment for God’s people was not where God would stop. The very fact that Israel was in exile meant that God’s name was being profaned among the nations. The military defeat and exile of Israel had led to people in the surrounding nations having a negative opinion about the power of the God of Israel: “These are the worshippers of Yahweh. The God of Israel, he must be weak. He couldn’t defended his land or save his people,” (Ezek 36:20).

Now the nations might laugh and sniggle; but God, being God, would not let this situation endure forever. God is concerned about his reputation, and that his name be honored. That may sound a little selfish; but after all, God is God! He has every right in the world as the Creator of this world to expect that his name be respected and honored.

So God would act for the sake of his name. God would act to deal with this unacceptable situation by bringing his people back to the promised land. There would be judgment; but following the judgment, there would be restoration. But how was God going to bring his people back to the land?

The average person may not have thought about this much, but how we can get back into the presence of God is really the big question of human history. The human race lost the right to live in God’s presence when our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, sinned against God, and were expelled from God’s land, the holy land of the garden of Eden. Israel, being saved out of Egypt, were given a chance to come back into the land; but even in the land their access to God was restricted. Access into the Most Holy Place, the inner sanctum of the temple in Jerusalem, was restricted to one person, the high priest, who could go into the Most Holy Place yet only once a year. This temporary access of Israel into God’s presence (corresponding to the limitations of the Old Testament sacrificial system with its use of the blood of bulls and sheep and goats) was later reflected on a physical level when Israel, like Adam, lost the right to live in the presence of God because of rebellion.

This two fall theology of the Old Testament was understood by the Apsotle Paul. Paul’s teaching in Rom 5:20, that the law was added in order to increase the trespass, is a summary of the whole of the Old Testament in one short proposition. The law of Moses was given to Israel to compound the problem of the trespass of Adam. The story of Israel replicates the story of Adam.

So the Old Testament is a story of two falls: the fall of humanity in Adam, and the fall of Israel through Moses. Both Adam and Israel lived in God’s land, but both ... only for a time. Adam for a few days—we aren't told how long, but the impression is that it wasn’t very long—and Israel for 700 years or so. In each instance the problem that led to exile was ... sin. The problem was disobedience to God, and this was the result of not having God’s word written in the heart.

Without the word of God in our hearts, humanity cannot live in the presence of God. But God made us in his image, so that he might live with us. So any expulsion of humanity from his presence must be temporary. If not, then Satan has won.

Therefore, God’s people will be brought back; and that is the overall message of the book of Ezekiel. The exile will be reversed, and Israel will return to live once more in the presence of God. A key motivation in doing this is God’s regard for his own name. God would act to bring his people back to life in the land, thereby “vindicat[ing] the holiness of [his] great name” (Ezek 36:22–24).

This return is associated with God cleansing his people, and giving them a “new heart” and a “new Spirit,” so that they might be able to obey him. Ezekiel 36:25–28 speaks about a heart transplant operation that would be performed by the Holy Spirit. The stony, unresponsive heart with its arteries clogged by the fat of sinfulness would be replaced with a new, responsive, beating heart of flesh. Animated by the power of God’s Spirit, this new heart would be responsive and obedient to the word of God.

The key to the future blessing of God’s people, according to Ezekiel, is a new heart and a new Spirit. If Adam and Israel failed, and (using the words of Isa 63:10) grieved [God’s] Holy Spirit because the word of God wasn’t in their hearts, then God would solve the problem. Ezekiel 36:26–28 is very significant in the bigger biblical-theological picture of the Bible, identifying the solution to the universal human problem.

The solution is that at some time in the future God’s Spirit would poured out in a comprehensive way in order to act upon the hearts of God’s people in a powerful way, so powerful in fact that God’s people would be transformed from being law breakers to become law keepers. How? Through the law of God written in the heart! Just like back in Gen 1. What is the key to life? It is the word of God.

The prophet Ezekiel, therefore, looked forward to a day when God’s Spirit would be so powerfully pervasive that God’s people would be cleansed of their sin, and moved to obedience, the result of which would be the coming of the blessings of the covenant, with God’s people dwelling secure as the obedient people of God. In fact, as Ezek 36:29–30 shows, these blessings would not be only for Israel, but creation itself would be transformed. No more famines, but fertility and fruitfulness. God’s people would repent of their sins (Ezek 36:31–32); there would be rebuilding and replanting (Ezek 36:33–34), so much so (according to Ezek 36:35) that it will like returning to the garden of Eden! Through the work of God’s Spirit, paradise lost will become paradise restored.

This prophecy regarding the future restoration of Israel is very important for understanding that God’s intention is to bring about a perfect world. Imagine what it would be like to be perfect: a perfect husband (no more dirty clothes left hanging around the place), a perfect wife (no more nagging), perfect kids (you would have to raise your voice), a perfect world (no pollution; no more colds; no more floods or fires or earthquakes or tsunamis; no more terrorism; no more war). I reckon it sounds pretty good. John Lennon could only imagine such a world, but Christians believe that a perfect world will one day be reality. For some it may be a pipe dream, but someone once said that baptism in the Holy Spirit “will do for you what a phone booth did for Clark Kent—it will change you into a different human being”!

Thankfully God doesn’t require us to get changed into Superman gear in a phone booth, but he does require his Spirit to be present in order for life to be experienced. The simple fact of the matter is that “the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6); and God gives his Spirit in abundance to those who submit to Christ as Lord, to those who have the word of God at work in their lives. The human race has always been tempted to look for life in all the wrong places, but the Bible says that life is found in the Spirit and word of God.

Jesus taught that the Spirit gives life (John 6:63). Indeed, the message of the New Testament is that the age of the full outpouring of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets looked forward to … this Age of the Spirit that will accomplish God’s plan for a perfect world … this has come with the coming of the Lord Jesus!

According to John 3:34, God the Father gave the Spirit to Jesus the Son “without measure” in order that he might fully reveal the word of God to the world. Jesus performed miracles like no one else has, because he was filled with the power of God’s Spirit beyond measure. And having himself personally dealt with sin and death through his death on the cross, Jesus, the Spirit-filled Second Adam, has led humanity back into God’s land, back into the presence of God. This was achieved through Jesus’ ascension into heaven. And having gone up into heaven, Jesus received the authority promised by the Father in various Old Testament passages to pour out the Holy Spirit on the church at the day of Pentecost, and since that time the promised Age of the Spirit has begun.

During this time, God’s Spirit has been at work in a much more comprehensive way than previously. God’s Spirit has been increasing his influence throughout the world, empowering the growth of the kingdom of God on earth, as the church, the Community of the Spirit, has grown throughout the world. And Christians, becoming members of Christ’s church through faith and baptism, share in this baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is why in 1 Cor 12:13, the Apostle Paul says: “by one Spirit, we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

The New Testament proclaims that, with the coming of Jesus, the Age of the Spirit that the Old Testament prophets looked forward to has begun. And present-day Christians have been blessed by God to participate in its unfurling. By the way, unfurling is an important concept to grab hold of here, because the question can be asked: if the Age of the Spirit has begun, then why is there still a struggle with sin in my life? Why do I still see sin in the life of God’s people? Why do I still get sick? Why do I see disease and war and famine and death throughout the world?

The answer to this question is: the Age of the Spirit has begun, but it has not yet reached its climax. The Age of the Spirit has begun in the sense that human hearts throughout the world are now coming under submission to Christ as the gospel is being proclaimed, and as disobedience is slowly being rooted out of the lives of God’s people. But what we see now is only a small picture of what will be on the day when Jesus returns, when the Spirit of God will be unleashed to his maximum capacity so as to fill the universe to overflowing.

Remember Jesus’ parables about the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God is really the realm of the special operations of God’s Spirit, the zone where God’s will is being done on earth as it is currently being done in heaven. Remember how Jesus describes the kingdom of God in his parables? God’s kingdom is like a small mustard seed that grows into a tree (Matt 13:31–32). It is like dough that expands to become a loaf (Matt 13:33). Jesus wants us to understand that the kingdom starts out small, but gets comparatively much much bigger as time goes on. This growth, this development of the kingdom of God over time and throughout the world, is how the Age of the Spirit will unfold. The new Spirit-filled world order is currently being unfurled, but the mind-blowing time will come when we will see the climactic totality of God's plan of universal blessing revealed before our eyes.

This fullness of the Spirit will come in God’s good time; but in the meantime, the important thing for Christians to realise is that we need to be participating in the Spirit! How important is it for you to participate in the Spirit? Have you been working at being as filled with God’s Spirit as much as you possibly can? Or are you busy pursuing other things in life? Christians have the privilege of participating in God’s Spirit, but we also need to pursue an ever greater filling of God’s Spirit. If we are not concerned about growing in God’s Spirit, we need to be careful lest we end up grieving God’s Spirit. Here we can take warning from the historical example of King Saul. He began with God’s Spirit, but ended up grieving God’s Spirit through rebellion (1 Sam 15:23, 26; 16:14). And Israel? All who passed through the sea drank the spiritual drink, says Paul, yet God was not pleased with the majority (1 Cor 10:1–5).

As Christians, we share in the Spirit; but through neglect, it may be that our tank is pretty close to empty. Do you feel today as if you’ve been drained of the Spirit, as if you’re almost running on empty? Well, you need to be topped up! But how does this happen? How can I be refilled with the Holy Spirit?

The answer to this question is straightforward, but it requires some co-operation on our part. Being filled with the Spirit is not necessarily a matter of being able to speak in tongues. Being filled with the Spirit actually correlates to how much God’s word is in our hearts. Being filled with the Spirit results in the fruit of the Spirit (Eph 5:18–21). If we have God’s Spirit, then we will be producing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, things such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23). But the key to all of this is the simple yet profound idea of having the word of God written in our hearts. When you combine Ezek 36:26–28 with Jer 31:31–33, you get Ezekiel’s idea of the new heart, new Spirit, and new obedience matching up with Jeremiah’s idea of the law written on the heart of God’s people as part of the new covenant. This is why filling with the Spirit in the new covenant age corresponds to the extent to which God’s word has been written on the heart.

Ultimately the writing of God’s word in our heart is a work of God’s Spirit. The Spirit is the one who must do the writing, that’s true. But he can’t do the writing if we’re not doing the hearing (Rom 10:17). God’s word will never be written in our hearts (apart from direct revelation) if we never spend time meditating upon the gospel, or if we never spend time reading God’s word and thinking about it. Why do we read and teach the Bible in church? Why do we sing psalms and Bible-based hymns rather than the latest hit pop song (the majority of which these days are fixated with sex)? What Christians do in church is based on the word of God, because we believe that, as we do so, that is the way that God’s word and Spirit come to fill our hearts.

Back at the end of the second century, there was a Greek boy born into a Christian family in present-day Turkey named Irenaeus. As a young man, Irenaeus grew up in the faith, and moved to Lyons in France. He became a clergyman, and eventually became the Bishop of Lyons. He is famous as one of the Early Church Fathers, and he wrote a number of important works defending the church against heresy. In his writings, he wrote concerning the relationship of the Holy Spirit and the church. One quotation that comes to mind is the following: “If you do not join in what the Church is doing, you have no share in [the] Spirit … For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and every kind of grace.”

The simple truth of the matter is that the Spirit gives life. It is important, therefore, that all people pursue the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. That can only happen by submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ. And then, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Son, Christians need to walk in the Spirit, and to pursue an ever greater filling with the Spirit, through joining in what the church is doing, and by meditating regularly on God’s word in prayer and in song. Without the Spirit of God, life does not exist. And without the word of God in our lives, we cannot be filled with the Spirit. How serious have you been lately about surrounding yourself and the lives of your loved ones in the word of God? Just as a car needs petrol, so too we need the Spirit of God.

Therefore, pursue the Spirit! Do so with all of your strength! But you do that by listening to the word of God.

Recall what Moses said to Israel. Look, this might be my last sermon before I die, but I’ve proclaimed the word of God to you today. I’ve set before you life and good, death and evil. Choose life by following the word of God!

Brothers and sisters, pursue the word of God! Pursue participation in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus! The word that gave life to this universe back in the beginning is the word that gives life to us today.

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